Published: June 10, 2013
A much-discussed “investigation” of an academic scandal sponsored by the University of North Carolina put the prestige and reputation of a former governor, Jim Martin, behind findings that concluded the African studies department’s “no-show” paper courses were all about academics and did not reflect a scandal in athletics.
That’s been a tenuous claim all along, but now newly released emails – requested nearly a year earlier – show that Julius Nyang’oro, the former African studies department chairman connected to a number of phony courses, was indeed pretty cozy with the athletics academic support system for athletes.
Members of that academic support staff offered Nyang’oro tickets and a chance to watch a football game from the sidelines. And, The News & Observer’s Dan Kane reported Sunday, a counselor offered to talk about athletes’ coursework over drinks, and still another discussed the scheduling of a specific “no-show” class with Nyang’oro.
Those classes were designed so that no professor lectured, and students studied on their own and then wrote one paper for a grade. They were popular with athletes. But the university’s disappointing investigation concluded that they weren’t really a product of an athletics-academic connection because there were a few non-athletes in the courses as well. That represented looking at the issue with blinders. The university, ever since this scandal started to break, has simply wanted it to go away.
A PR problem?
In a related story reported by Kane, it turns out a university foundation is paying $500,000 for outside public relations work to, among other things, coach Chancellor Holden Thorp on how to respond to the ongoing crisis. That half a million dollars would come from university resources of any kind to do that is embarrassing in and of itself. The university has its own public relations staff, and Thorp holds a doctorate and is surrounded by people who are highly educated and experienced. They needed coaching on answering questions?
This shows, of course, that all along, UNC-Chapel Hill officials regarded this unfolding (and apparently, still unfolding) scandal as an annoyance more than anything else. They didn’t take it seriously, and they thought it would just go away if they could massage their response with professional help.
The significance of these latest emails is that they show a strong connection between a department chairman who was most cooperative when it came to athletes in his classes and those who were advising players on what courses to take. Throughout this crisis, the university has tried to make a case that there was no conspiracy here, that Nyang’oro and Debbie Crowder, who managed his department, were the ones responsible for the no-show classes and the embarrassment that followed their disclosure.
Aimed to please
But consider an exchange between Jamie Lee, an academic counselor for athletes, and Nyang’oro. She wrote him in March of 2010 about putting back on the academic calendar a Swahili language course that should have been taught in lectures, but had been turned into a “paper” class requiring a term paper at semester’s end:
“I failed to mention yesterday that Swahili 403 last summer was offered as a research paper course. I meant to (ask), do you think this may happen again in the future. If not the summer, maybe the fall?”
Nyang’oro responded: “Driving a hard bargain; should have known. … Will have to think about this, but talk to me…” He emailed Lee later: “I have added AFAM 398 to our Summer Schedule. … :)”
In other correspondence, it’s shown that an academic tutor had drawn up “topic” papers for athletes that amounted to outlines for 10-page, double-spaced papers the athletes were going to have to write for two classes in 2005.
That type of thing was frowned upon by Dr. Madeline Levine, a former interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 2006. Levine told The News & Observer she was appalled to see how much work the tutor had done for athletes in those courses. She said that kind of assistance wouldn’t have been rendered by tutors of regular students.
“It looks really corrupt, academically corrupt, to me,” Levine said.
That’s exactly how it looks. And as these latest pieces of correspondence make clear, the university had, and still has, a lot more than a public relations problem staring it in the face.