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The Virginian-Pilot(Norfolk, VA.)

By Sarah Lyall

The New York Times

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.

In the summer of 2011, 19 undergraduates at the University of North Carolina signed up for a lecture course called AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina. The professor was Julius Nyang'oro, an internationally respected scholar and longtime chairman of the African and Afro-American studies department.

It is doubtful the students learned much about blacks, North Carolina or anything else, although they received grades for papers they supposedly turned in and Nyang'oro, the instructor, was paid $12,000. University and law-enforcement officials say AFAM 280 never met. One of dozens of courses in the department that officials say were taught incompletely or not at all, AFAM 280 is the focus of a criminal indictment against Nyang'oro that was issued in December.

Eighteen of the 19 students enrolled in the class were members of the North Carolina football team (the other was a former member), reportedly steered there by academic advisers who saw their roles as helping athletes maintain high enough grades to remain eligible to play.

Handed up by an Orange County, N.C., grand jury, the indictment charged Nyang'oro with "unlawfully, willfully and feloniously" accepting payment "with the intent to cheat and defraud" the university in connection with the AFAM course - a virtually unheard-of legal accusation against a professor.

The indictment, critics say, covers just a small piece of one of the biggest cases of academic fraud in North Carolina history. That it has taken place at Chapel Hill, known for its rigorous academic standards as well as an athletic program revered across the country, has made it only more shocking.

Two reports on the activities of the African and Afro-American studies department, one internal and one conducted by former North Carolina Gov. James Martin, found problems with dozens of courses and said as many as 560 unauthorized grade changes were suspected of having been made - often with forged faculty signatures - dating to 1997. The investigations began after a 2011 report by The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.

Nyang'oro, who ran the department for 20 years, remains the mystery at the center of the case. Nyang'oro, who retired from the university in July 2012, is accused in the reports of teaching dozens of barely existent or questionably led classes and presiding over a department in which grades were illicitly changed, professors' signatures were forged, and athletes routinely were enrolled in laughably lax classes.

But with each new disclosure, even as his reputation has been savaged, Nyang'oro has not explained himself.

"Julius has provided no help in answering our questions," said Jay Smith, a history professor and a vocal critic of the way the university has handled the matter. "He's been in a cone of silence for the last three years."

Athletes, including many from the popular and revenue-producing football and basketball teams, made up nearly half of the students enrolled in the dubious courses.

The university says the blame rests firmly and exclusively on two people: Nyang'oro and Deborah Crowder, the department manager, who retired in 2009 after 30 years there.

Crowder had close ties to the athletic program and has long been in a relationship with former UNC basketball player Warren Martin.

The two reports on the department's activities each named Crowder as being involved in the infractions. Crowder, who has not been charged, did not return messages left on her home voice mail.

Some on campus and elsewhere are skeptical that just two people could carry out the questionable activities on their own.

"How in the world could a scam like this go on for so long, and no one knew about it?" asked Smith, the professor.

Michael West, a friend and onetime UNC colleague of Nyang'oro's, believes the university has made him a scapegoat.

"My view is that the university is portraying these two people, Nyang'oro and Crowder, as a couple of rogue employees," West said.

"But I am sure there were many people in the athletic department and elsewhere who were aware of it," he added.

"These two people are being made to take the blame and put out to dry, when the problem was institutional."

Nyang'oro's lawyer, Bill Thomas, told reporters in December that the case would give his client a chance to explain himself.

Thomas did not return calls, and Nyang'oro did not respond to messages seeking comment.

At Nyang'oro's home in Durham, he answered the door one recent night but closed it without saying anything.

West, now a professor at Binghamton University, said Nyang'oro had provided at least a sliver of insight into his thinking in several emails.

After his resignation, Nyang'oro sent him a message saying he had left the university because it "ain't worth the aggravation," West said.

Crowder never allowed university investigators to interview her, and Nyang'oro appears to have provided only the sparsest of information, leaving huge gaps in the public record.

Many questions remain, including how far back the questionable activities went and how exactly they transpired.

University administrators point out that numerous reforms have been put in place.

These include a series of stringent controls over the curriculum and faculty in which, for instance, course syllabuses will be monitored, faculty teaching assignments will be regularly reviewed, and classes will be subject to spot checks to ensure they are actually meeting.

University Provost James W. Dean Jr. said in an interview that there had been no way to anticipate such behavior on a large scale in an institution that relies on the professionalism and basic good will of its employees.

"Universities for a very long time have been based on trust," Dean said. "One of the ramifications of this is that now we can no longer operate on trust."

 

January 2, 2014

 

 
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