UNC Accreditor Reinvestigates 'Paper' Classes

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Copyright 2017 News & Record (Greensboro, North Carolina)
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News & Record (Greensboro, North Carolina)


RALEIGH — UNC-Chapel Hill's accreditor says it will look into statements the university made to an NCAA panel at an August hearing that showed support for classes at the heart of a long-running academic scandal that involved a disproportionate number of athletes.

Those statements, made behind closed doors in August and recently disclosed by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions in its decision not to punish UNC, appear to contradict a promise UNC made four years ago to the accreditor that the classes would not be counted toward graduation.

The accreditor's decision to review the statements stems from three passages in the NCAA's decision that say the university stood by the classes hundreds of students took. The NCAA committee cited UNC's backing of the classes for not sanctioning UNC because NCAA rules leave academic fraud determinations to universities.

The NCAA investigation was prompted by revelations about classes that never met, had no instruction and were created by a secretary who provided a high grade on papers she admitted not reading in full.

But UNC did not stand behind the classes in 2013 when the accrediting commission first looked into the scandal. UNC staved off sanctions from the accreditor by agreeing not to honor "paper" classes taken by students who needed them to graduate.

"It does raise the question of what did you really do?" said Belle Wheelan, the president of the accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, of UNC. "... And at worst we should probably ask that question."

She said of the infractions committee report: "We're working through the report. It says a lot, but it says nothing, so we are trying to ferret out what it actually says."

Up for reaccreditation

UNC is up for reaccreditation next month, which presents an opportunity for the accreditor to address how UNC handled the classes.

The infraction committee's report had already drawn plenty of controversy by pointing out that UNC had told the accreditor the classes were "academic fraud" in correspondence nearly three years ago. The committee said UNC officials at the August hearing called that phrase "a typo."

Wheelan had initially said after the infraction committee released its report in October that there was no need for further review. She changed her mind this week after seeing the three passages in the report that said UNC's stance was that the classes counted.

"Despite the fact that the courses failed to meet, involved little, if any, faculty engagement, and were often graded by the secretary, UNC argued the courses violated no UNC policy," the infractions committee report said. "UNC further claimed that work was assigned, completed and graded, and the grades counted towards a UNC degree."

Actually, according to UNC's 2013 agreement with the accreditor, those students who had yet to graduate had to take an exam or submit the work they did for the class to show they had learned the subject matter and deserved the grade. If they couldn't do that, the students would have to take another class to replace the lost credit hours. After UNC agreed to those requirements, the accreditor spared the university any sanctions, but continued to keep it on special monitoring.

UNC officials have not explained the discrepancy between the 2013 agreement with the accreditor and the language of the infractions committee report. Joanne Peters Denny, a UNC spokeswoman, said in an email that UNC does not have a transcript or recording of the infractions committee hearing, which would show what UNC officials said. NCAA infractions hearings are closed to the public. The only public version of what UNC said in the hearing is the infraction committee's report.

Greg Sankey, the chairman of the infractions committee that heard the case referred all questions to NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn. She said the committee would have "nothing further" to say about the case.

The committee's decision and UNC's defense of the no-show classes have drawn national skepticism and calls for reform. Late last month, the Knight Commission on college athletics said member schools should not be the sole decider of academic fraud in cases before the committee. Arne Duncan, a commission co-chairman and former U.S. education secretary, called it a loophole that needed to be closed.

Fetzer: 'Clear violation'

Tom Fetzer, a member of the UNC system's Board of Governors and a former Raleigh mayor, said he didn't believe UNC's position on the classes to the NCAA. He said the university's characterization of the classes to the NCAA appears to be a "clear violation" of the university's agreement with the accreditor, commonly referred to as SACS.

"I am nonplussed that SACS has not queried UNC about complying with their earlier agreements, especially in light of the NCAA opinion," said Fetzer, a lobbyist appointed to the board this year.

According to the most detailed investigation into the classes by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, more than 3,100 students took at least one of the classes, which he identified as part of a "shadow curriculum." Athletes made up nearly half of the enrollments, despite representing only 4 percent of the student body.

Wainstein found that Deborah Crowder, a former secretary in the African studies department, created and graded many of the roughly 185 classes that were listed as lecture style but never met and had no instruction. Crowder retired in 2009. Academic counselors to the football team persuaded her boss, department chairman Julius Nyang'oro, to continue them.

The accrediting commission revisited the case after Wainstein's report in 2014, concerned that some UNC officials had not disclosed everything they knew about the scandal. In response, UNC described the classes in a lengthy report to the accrediting commission, released in January 2015, as academic fraud:

"The Wainstein report explains this information at length and in significant detail and demonstrates, as SACSCOC correctly observes, that the academic fraud was long-standing and not limited to the misconduct of just Nyang'oro and Crowder," the university reported.

"Indeed, the latter point is precisely what led the University ... to terminate or commence disciplinary reviews of a number of employees — all in furtherance of Carolina's commitment to holding individuals appropriately accountable for the past academic failings. On December 31, 2014, and as explained further below, the University publicly released information about those terminations and ongoing disciplinary reviews."

'Typographical error'

But the infractions committee last month said UNC officials disavowed Wainstein's report at the hearing in August, and called the use of the term academic fraud in the accreditation report a "typographical error."

The infractions committee cited UNC's shifting positions on the legitimacy of the classes, but said its hands were tied by a 2014 rule that leaves academic fraud determinations up to member schools.

Over the past six years, UNC has referred to the classes as "aberrant," "anomalous," or "irregular," though former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp told faculty in a July 2012 message: "We disclosed this academic fraud, and we are fixing it."

Contact Dan Kane at 919-829-4861 or dkane@newsobserver.com and follow @dankanenando.

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November 10, 2017


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