The University of North Carolina on Wednesday released the results of an independent investigation into academic fraud in the university’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies, finding that the creation of so-called “paper classes” with few real academic requirements aided more than 3,000 students.
The 136-page report, commissioned by the university and conducted by ex-federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, found that while the sham classes “were taken by students of all types,” they were “especially popular among student-athletes, particularly those who played the ‘revenue’ sports of football and men’s basketball.” The report paints the picture of a university facing tension between its high academic standards and reputation and the massive expectations it also has for its athletic programs.
The scandal, according to the findings, stretched from the AFAM program into the athletic department as well. Nearly half of the roughly 3,100 students who benefited from the classes, the report states, were athletes, even though athletes make up just four percent of the UNC student body. Over the 18-year period in which the classes existed, roughly one-in-five of UNC’s athletes took at least one paper class, compared to just two percent of the general population.
The benefits were substantial, especially for athletes.
“The average grade given to all student-athletes for the paper classes was 3.55, as compared to an average student-athlete grade of 2.84 for the regular AFAM classes,” the report states. More than half — 50.9 percent — of the athletes who took the classes were football players; 12.2 percent were men’s basketball players.
The paper class scheme, according to the investigation, was the work of Deborah Crowder, the student services manager in the AFAM department, and Dr. Julius Nyang’oro, the chair of the AFAM curriculum. The “paper classes” were originally designed as independent studies that did not meet and required only that one paper be submitted to receive credit; later they switched to a lecture-style class but still did not meet. In the classes — more than 188 over a 18-year period from 1993 to 2011 — Crowder “liberally grad[ed] the papers,” according to the report, and there were few requirements or faculty involvement. The report indicates that students and athletes had a wide knowledge of the classes, and that “a significant proportion of the papers submitted in these classes included large amounts” of plagiarism.
Football players interviewed as part of the report said they were “steered to these classes” by academic counselors who advised athletes, some of whom “were fully aware that there was no faculty involvement and that Crowder was managing the whole course and grading the papers.” The counselors viewed the classes as “GPA boosters,” and some even recommended specific grades for players enrolled in them. Before Crowder’s retirement in 2009, both pushed more athletes into the classes and “successfully persuaded Nyang’oro to continue offering paper classes after Crowder retired.”
Though at least one basketball counselor was well aware of the classes, basketball players were more likely to find the classes based on recommendations from each other, according to the report. Still, they found them: when North Carolina won the men’s basketball national championship in 2005, 10 of 15 players on the team were AFAM majors. Shortly after the championship, the school’s most high-profile athletic face — head basketball coach Roy Williams — became concerned about the high number of AFAM majors on his roster and instructed academic advisers “to make sure that basketball…personnel were not steering players into the AFAM Department,” according to the report.
While coaches and athletic department officials may have been aware of the classes and their lack of rigor, there is no evidence that they were aware of the extent of the classes’ problems. The athletic department, including former UNC athletic director Dick Baddour, who retired in 2011, “never probed to learn about their irregularities,” the report says.
Maintaining UNC’s high academic standards and successful athletic programs, the report states, has created “tension between academics and athletics” that exists at many universities with similar atmospheres, and UNC now stands as an indication of how that tension can go wrong. The investigation found that Crowder was motivated to help disadvantaged students — and athletes in particular — who struggled to meet UNC’s academic standards, but with the paper classes, Crowder and Nyang’oro took the step of relieving the existing tension by “offering watered-down academic requirements that made it easier” for struggling athletes to make grades.
The academic fraud allegations originally came to light in 2011. After it “never scrutinized AFAM’s operations or the academic integrity of their course operations” for years, North Carolina has worked to address the case since it became public, reporting potential violations to the NCAA and commissioning Wainstain’s report. The NCAA and UNC said in a joint statement posted to Twitter that both the university and NCAA enforcement staff will review the report for possible rule violations.