Published: March 9, 2013
By Dan Kane — firstname.lastname@example.org
In the 18 months since UNC-Chapel Hill first acknowledged academic fraud on its campus, there have been several public reports and numerous high-profile open meetings about the scandal. And yet, much remains unknown, in part because the university and its consultants have rejected or not responded to numerous requests for information.
In January, a university-commissioned probe released data related to the more than 200 classes and independent studies that lacked an instructor. The authors, former Gov. Jim Martin and the Baker Tilly management consulting firm, cited the data as evidence that they had done everything they could to get to the bottom of a scandal that stayed out of the public eye for at least 14 years.
But their report left many questions unanswered. It didn’t, for example, examine paper records of enrollments in the 44 bogus classes identified before the fall of 2001, which would have explained how many athletes were in the classes and how they did. And it did not identify which classes had a combined total of 560 suspected unauthorized grade changes or how many of those involved players on the football and men’s basketball teams.
The News & Observer filed a records request with the university to obtain that information and more. The response: If Baker Tilly and Martin didn’t do the analysis, then it wasn’t going to be made available.
UNC-Chapel Hill is known as a “Public Ivy,” one of the top five public universities in the country. But the lack of information about the scandal, said state Sen. Thom Goolsby, is one reason that the university’s academic reputation continues to suffer.
“If the answers had been forthcoming in this, the story would have been over,” said Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican.
University officials say they have made a good-faith effort to respond to information requests. They say in the past three years that have included an NCAA investigation into the football team and the academic fraud scandal, they have received 935 information requests, with roughly half coming from the media.
They estimated the requests regarding the NCAA investigation, academic fraud case and a travel scandal within the fundraising office have produced close to 95,000 pages of public records.
“On the whole, we have made what I consider to be extraordinary efforts to provide the public with information about these issues,” Chancellor Holden Thorp said in a written statement. “But I fully recognize and sincerely regret the frustration, at times, with the pace at which we are able to provide public records relative to the high level of interest in such topics.
“We continually strive to improve our internal processes and the University’s capacity to respond to and communicate with those who are requesting public records, including members of the news media. The principle of openness is important, and one about which we can all agree.”
As for the Martin and Baker Tilly report, after the initial denial, UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon said last week that staffers are pulling records that were provided to the former governor and the consultant. But she said other information from student records would not be available because the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects student education records.
Students’ names could be redacted from the documents, making it possible to provide the records without breaking the law.
‘It’s hard to understand’
The N&O has filed dozens of public records requests related to the scandal since reporting the first piece of evidence that prompted the investigations. That was a transcript of Marvin Austin, a highly recruited football player who had been enrolled in what turned out to be a no-show class before he began his first full semester as a freshman.
All of the bogus classes appear to have come from the Department of African and Afro-American Studies; university officials say the former chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, and his former departmental manager, Deborah Crowder, were solely responsible.
In some cases, the university has responded by providing revealing information. It provided data, for example, showing the number of enrollments of football and men’s basketball players in no-show classes over the past five years, and in independent studies over the past 10.
That data showed high percentages of athletes enrolled in many of the classes. It also showed that men’s basketball players no longer enrolled in independent studies after an independent study scandal broke at Auburn University.
It is unclear why Martin and the Baker Tilly consultants left that information out of their report. They contend, as does the university, that the high percentages of athletes in the classes aren’t indicative of an athletic scandal.
Since the fall of 2001, athletes accounted for 45 percent of the enrollments and 49 percent of the suspect grade changes. Athletes make up less than five percent of the undergraduate population.
In many other cases, the university has not responded to requests dating as far back as June for other records that would shed light on the scandal. They include requests for records turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation, which is conducting a criminal probe, as well as documents that may have been generated when Nyang’oro first spoke with university officials before he resigned from his position.
The lack of response on some requests troubled Wade Hargrove, chairman of UNC-CH’s Board of Trustees. A lawyer specializing in the media business and public records, Hargrove said he has told university officials to be forthcoming and timely in responding to public records requests.
“On its face, it’s hard to understand why it takes this long to respond to some requests,” he said.
Looking for answers
Critics say the lack of information suggest that the university is trying to keep the scandal from prompting a second NCAA investigation that could also look at men’s basketball, the school’s most important and beloved athletic program.
The football team was penalized last year after an NCAA investigation found improper financial benefits from agents and their go-betweens, and improper academic help from someone university officials described as a “rogue” tutor.
“It is clear to me that the university does not wish to seek the truth because they are afraid of what the answer might be, and how it might affect their premier athletic program, which is men’s basketball,” said Gerald Gurney, a professor and former head of academic services for athletes at the University of Oklahoma.
Initially, the academic fraud scandal appeared to be largely about football, but as more evidence emerged, it showed that men’s basketball players had also enrolled in the no-show classes and poorly supervised independent studies.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said in January that the association hasn’t decided whether to investigate and is awaiting the outcomes of other reviews, including the SBI criminal investigation.
The N&O has requested all correspondence between the NCAA and the university as it relates to the academic fraud scandal; the request has been partially fulfilled.
Goolsby said the UNC scandal is a big reason he is again pushing legislation this session that would create a misdemeanor crime for public officials who refuse to provide public records. Senate Bill 125 has nine other sponsors, including state Sen. Tom Apodaca, who leads the powerful rules committee and the budget writing committee for education.
Goolsby said he hopes the SBI investigation will answer how the scandal happened, who knew about it and why it took so long to become public.
But that may not happen, even if charges are filed. Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said the SBI investigation pertains to criminal matters and would not necessarily seek to determine the extent of the academic fraud, which in and of itself is not a crime.
If that’s the case, Goolsby said he would consider calling for legislative hearings to try to produce information, as well as other legislation to prevent such a scandal from happening again.
“I know that there’s a lot of people in the legislature who are looking out for this, listening for this,” he said. “We want answers, and I hope we’re going to get them.”