North Carolina avoids major sanctions in academic fraud case

ByJeff Goodman ESPN logo
Friday, October 13, 2017

North Carolina avoided major sanctions after the NCAA could not conclude the school violated academic rules when it made available deficient Department of African and Afro-American Studies "paper courses" to the general student body, including student-athletes.

The NCAA said in a release Friday that the committee on infractions found two violations in this case: Former department chairman Julius Nyang'oroand retired office administrator Deborah Crowder failed to cooperate during the investigation.The only sanction connected with the investigation is a five-year show cause for Nyang'orolasting until Oct. 12, 2022.Crowder was not punished, but the NCAA said it is making note of her initial lack of cooperation.

"While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called 'paper courses' offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes," Greg Sankey, the panel's chief hearing officer and commissioner of the SEC, said in the release. "The panel is troubled by the university's shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus and the credibility of the Cadwalader report, which it distanced itself from after initially supporting the findings. However, NCAA policy is clear. The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership."

Men's basketball coach Roy Williams was among the university's coaches to say he was looking forward to moving on from the investigation.

"We're certainly thankful the case has been decided and this great University can move forward. We appreciate the hard work and effort from so many people in presenting the facts of the case to the Committee," Williams said in a statement. "I thank Chancellor [Carol] Folt and [athletic director] Bubba [Cunningham] for their leadership. This is my alma mater and I love it deeply. We've all learned to be a better university from this case. Now we can focus completely on our mission of teaching and coaching our student-athletes and helping the university reach its dreams and goals."

Cunningham said in his statement that he was glad the case is over and thanked the committee for its time and effort.

Still, even with what had to be the best possible outcome -- a weight being lifted that has loomed over the Chapel Hill campus for years -- school officials greeted the news more with cautious relief than exuberance.

"This isn't a time of celebration," Folt said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

The NCAA investigation centered on a system in which a significant percentage of student-athletes took classes that had academic irregularities -- and whether that resulted in those athletes receiving an impermissible benefit. The classes were taken by more than 3,100 students -- nearly half of them athletes -- from 1993 to 2011. However, the investigation was focused from 2002 to 2011.

The independent study-style courses came in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and often required no attendance, as well as grade changes, forged faculty signatures and just one paper at the conclusion of the semester. The athletes were reportedly guided into the classes to help them remain academically eligible.

North Carolina has maintained that the NCAA has no jurisdiction over this academic matter and has denied that student-athletes received impermissible benefits due to the fact that the classes in question were offered to the entire student body.

The panel also did not conclude, based on the record before it, that extra benefits were provided to student-athletes. The panel noted the former secretary credibly explained during the hearing that she treated all students the same.

"While student-athletes likely benefited from the courses, so did the general student body," said Sankey. "Additionally, the record did not establish that the university created and offered the courses as part of a systemic effort to benefit only student-athletes."

The Tar Heels won a pair of national titles within the span -- in 2005 and 2009. North Carolina also won a national championship this past season, but that title was never in question.

The NCAA, which had investigated the football program in 2010, reopened a new investigation in June of 2014 and issued the first notice of allegations in May of 2015 -- which included a lack of institutional control and also offering impermissible benefits to athletes. There was a second NOA in April of 2016 in which there was still a lack of institutional control, but no mention of men's basketball or football and also no impermissible benefits charge.

Sankey asked the enforcement staff to look at new information in November of 2016 -- and a third notice of allegations in December of 2016 included both men's basketball and football once again and had UNC facing five top-level charges -- including a lack of institutional control and the initial extra benefit charge. Two other charges pertained to Nyang'oro and Crowder failing to cooperate with the NCAA enforcement staff requests -- violating the NCAA principles of ethical conduct. The final one involved an academic counselor providing extra benefits by way of impermissible academic assistance and special arrangements to women's basketball players from 2003 to 2010.

North Carolina had a two-day hearing in mid-April in Nashville in front of the committee on infractions. Women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell, football coach Larry Fedora, Williams, Cunningham and Folt were all in attendance.

"We're just so excited to put this past us so we can concentrate on coaching these outstanding young ladies," Hatchell said in a statement. "I want to thank Chancellor Folt for her support and leadership. Everyone at the University, from Bubba Cunningham to the folks in compliance, worked together as a team to resolve this matter. Our basketball team is working hard in the preseason and we look forward to the start of the season."

The NCAA began investigating the North Carolina football program back in June of 2010 for impermissible benefits and academic fraud under former coach Butch Davis. The football program received a one-year postseason ban, lost 15 scholarships over a three-year period and also was forced to vacate 15 wins in March of 2012. The school conducted an internal faculty investigation in which it was found that there were issues with 54 classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies taught from 2007 to 2011. There was then another review from former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin who found the sham classes went back to 1997.

North Carolina hired Kenneth Wainstein in February of 2014 to work on an independent investigation into the scandal. It found that former African studies department chairman Nyang'oro and Crowder created bogus classes and enrolled student-athletes to help them remain eligible over a span from 1993 to 2011. Crowder left the university in 2009.

In a statement, attorney Elliot Abrams called Crowder "a lifetime public servant who treated all students equal." He added: "The truth of these facts is clear and has been affirmed by today's ruling."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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