Academic fraud; AFAM grade changes; Deborah Crowder
In May of 2012 UNC released the report from a faculty-led internal investigation into the school’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM). According to a May 4, 2012, article by investigative reporter Dan Kane of the Raleigh News and Observer, evidence had been found of academic fraud involving more than 50 classes that ranged from no-show professors to unauthorized grade changes. The report would give many details, but also seemingly leave just as many important questions unanswered.
According to Kane’s article, one of the no-show classes was a Swahili course taken by former football player Michael McAdoo. That same course had earlier been at the center of the NCAA claims that McAdoo had received impermissible tutoring, which then led to the discovery of a paper being heavily plagiarized. The vast majority of the suspect AFAM classes were found to have been taught by former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro. Along with the release of the report, the university also said that Nyang’oro would be retiring effective July 1. According to Nancy Davis, the Associate Vice Chancellor for University Relations, “Professor Nyang’oro offered to retire, and we agreed that was in the best interest of the department, the college and the university.”
The report attempted to make it clear that there was no evidence that student athletes received more favorable treatment (via the suspect courses) than students who were not athletes. In fact, this would become a common sentiment to be proclaimed by UNC leadership in the months and years to come, and was the school’s main argument that its athletic teams should not be punished due to the academic fraud: because non-athletes were part of the classes as well. Possible insight into why non-athletes were in those classes would eventually be revealed, but not for over a year after the release of the May 2012 report. As such, that information will be discussed in a later chapter.
A direct line from Kane’s article stated, “The findings were so serious that the university consulted with the district attorney and the SBI about investigating forgery allegations, as some professors said their signatures were forged in documents certifying that they had taught some of the classes in question. Professors also said they had not authorized grade changes for students that the department submitted to the registrar’s office.”
An immediate set of questions would arise from the lines in the above paragraph. The most obvious dealt with the grade changes. For whom were they changed, and what were the new/old grades? And what effects, if any, did it have on those students’ overall grade point averages? If they were athletes, did the changes allow them to keep their eligibility in a particular sport? More than a year and a half later, the school has still not revealed that information.
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According to the report, law enforcement officials declined to investigate because they did not think the forgeries rose to the level of criminal activity. What was apparently not considered, however, was the fact that some of the forgeries dealt with classes that were “on record” with the school, and where students received grades. They were part of the monetary framework of the university’s financial and bookkeeping structure. Yet no one taught them – since the professors’ said signatures were forged. Did anyone receive the pay for having taught those classes, even though no “teaching” took place?
Jonathan Hartlyn and William L. Andrews were the two senior faculty administrators who conducted the investigation. In a joint statement they said, “We are deeply disturbed by what we have learned in the course of our review. Our review has exposed numerous violations of professional trust, affecting the relationship of faculty and students and the relationships among faculty colleagues in this department. These violations have undermined the educational experience of a number of students, have the potential to generate unfounded doubt and mistrust toward the department and faculty, and could harm the academic reputation of the university.”
Information that would become extremely important in the future was that the timeframe covered in the report only went back as far as the summer of 2007, and ended with the summer of 2011. A reason for this was given in a later interview by Chancellor Holden Thorp, who said the course review did not go back before summer 2007 because the university wanted to obtain the most accurate records and recollections available. Another possible explanation, though obviously never stated by the university, was that the summer of 2007 coincided with the first time the recruits of former football coach Butch Davis were on campus. Furthermore, Davis was fired in late July of 2011, showing that his tenure at the school essentially mirrored the time period UNC chose to focus its AFAM report. Many in the social media world would suggest, perhaps rightfully so, that the school was attempting to pin all of its academic troubles on the now-ended Davis regime and his football players
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Much more valuable insight was provided via the report and the aforementioned article by Dan Kane. It showed that the AFAM department’s long-time administrator, Deborah Crowder, would have overseen much of the course scheduling and grade recording. She retired in September 2009 and declined to be interviewed for the internal investigation. The newspaper reported that she made $36,130 a year before retiring, but she could also not be reached for further comment by the newspaper. Like the pattern that followed the initial mentioning of Nyang’oro’s name a year earlier, Crowder would also soon become a much more central figure in the academic scandal.
One of the classes that was deemed a “no-show” course was the 400-level class where Marvin Austin received a B-plus during his first summer on campus. Kane’s article noted that Nyang’oro had been unable to produce a syllabus for that class, “Bioethics in Afro-American Studies,” or the Swahili class that Michael McAdoo had taken. That was another red flag, according to the school’s report, because documents provided by other professors teaching similar courses focused on reading and writing in Swahili, not writing papers about Swahili culture in English, as McAdoo had submitted.
More problems arose when Nyang’oro told the university investigators that he did not teach the aforementioned Swahili class, yet the plagiarized paper McAdoo submitted listed Nyang’oro’s name as the course professor. The investigation found it was one of nine classes in which there was no evidence that any professor “actually supervised the course and graded the work, although grade rolls were signed and submitted.” And as stated earlier, other professors who were listed on grade rolls for those classes said their names were forged on course documents. McAdoo was one of 59 students taking those classes. Yet again, an obvious question was left unasked and thus unanswered: who were the other students? Were they athletes whose eligibility was somehow affected by the fake grades?
The report also found a “strikingly high” percentage of cases in Nyang’oro’s classes in which temporary grades were converted to permanent ones. Several other faculty members said they had not authorized grade changes for students. It was not detailed in the report whether the newer, “permanent” grades were higher than the “temporary” ones, despite this being a seemingly obvious set of data to seek in order to uncover motive. And once again, the issue of athletic eligibility was completely ignored by the report – despite the clear evidence of Marvin Austin and Michael McAdoo benefitting from taking the classes, McAdoo’s plagiarism withstanding. As detailed when discussing Austin’s transcript in Chapter Five, a 2.0 grade point average was required to be in good academic standing at the school. If temporary grades were later changed to permanent ones, and the ensuing result was that an athlete’s GPA was bumped above the 2.0 threshold, then clear intent would be established. Again, none of that was addressed in the report. Whether the investigators looked into the matter and then chose to not include it, based on what they possibly discovered, is unknown.
Indeed, the report did not cast any blame on the athletics department. However, information obtained by the News and Observer showed the AFAM’s independent study courses were popular with athletes, and that Nyang’oro was often teaching them. Such courses had drawn suspicion in the past due to the sometimes lax attendance and work policies, and athletic programs at other universities had gotten into trouble based on some independent study courses, according to the N&O.
In all, nine courses from the summer 2007 through summer 2011 timeframe were found to be aberrant, meaning there was evidence that students completed written work, submitted it to the department and received grades, but there was no evidence that the faculty member listed as instructor of record or any other faculty member actually supervised the course and graded the work. Those nine courses had a collective total of 59 registered students, according to the report. Furthermore, an additional 43 courses with a collective total of 599 registered students were either aberrant or were taught irregularly. The latter meant that the instructor provided an assignment and evidently graded the resultant paper, but engaged in limited or no classroom or other instructional contact with students.
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The AFAM’s long-time administrator, Deborah Crowder, was earlier mentioned as being the person who would have overseen much of the course scheduling and grade recording within the department. Crowder began working at the university in 1979, and retired in 2009. Details would emerge that showed a very close relationship between Crowder and the men’s basketball program. She had been in a long-standing relationship with former basketball player Warren Martin, who played on the 1982 National Championship team. At the time the various fraudulent classes were being revealed, Crowder also had a Facebook social media page. When the report was publicly revealed her Facebook page was still open to public view, and her “friends” list contained a staggering collection of former UNC men’s basketball players – many of whom had played on past National Championship teams.
-- Wayne Ellington (played from 2006-09, and was a member of the 2009 National Championship team)
-- Bobby Frasor (2006-09, and a member of the 2009 National Championship team)
-- Tyler Hansbrough (2005-09, and a member of the 2009 National Championship team)
-- Quentin Thomas (2004-08, and a member of the 2005 National Championship team)
-- Wes Miller (2004-07, and a member of the 2005 National Championship team)
-- Byron Sanders (2003-06, and a member of the 2005 National Championship team)
-- David Noel (2002-06, and a member of the 2005 National Championship team)
-- Rashad McCants (2002-05, and a member of the 2005 National Championship team)
-- (The wife of) Jawad Williams (2001-05, and a member of the 2005 National Championship team)
-- (The wife of) Jackie Manuel (2001-05, and a member of the 2005 National Championship team)
-- Will Johnson (1999-03)
-- Terrence Newby (1997-00)
-- Ademola Okulaja (1995-99)
-- Donald Williams (1992-95, and a member of the 1993 National Championship team)
-- Derrick Phelps (1990-94, and a member of the 1993 National Championship team)
-- Kevin Salvadori (1990-94, and a member of the 1993 National Championship team)
-- J.R. Reid (1986-89)
-- David Popson (1984-87)
One other name of note stood out amongst Crowder’s “friends” list: Kay Thomas. Thomas was a long-time secretary of the UNC men’s basketball team. According to a 2012 interview with the website keepingitheel.com, Thomas worked for the basketball program under Coach Dean Smith until he retired.
Also of significant interest was the emerging revelation that Crowder was very close to Burgess McSwain, a long-time academic adviser to UNC’s men’s basketball team. A story that originally appeared in the Chapel Hill News in February of 2004 detailed many of McSwain’s accomplishments involving academics and the school’s basketball team. There was even a quote given by Julius Nyang’oro in the article. It followed a lead-in that proclaimed that McSwain’s efforts and skills as a teacher had won the respect of numerous UNC faculty members who regularly teach student athletes. Nyang’oro’s remarks immediately followed, part of which stated, “Burgess has a clear sense of what a teacher needs to do to convey the key concepts that need to be understood. She is another transmission belt in the teaching process.” In fact, that specific topic, “faculty members who regularly teach student athletes,” was immediately changed following Nyang’oro’s quotes, leaving him as the only faculty member featured in the section. Later in the article McSwain was quoted as saying, “I tell people who ask me that it’s not a sham at Carolina. I can’t say what happens at other schools, but at Carolina, while we may spoon-feed them a little bit, they go in and take their own exams and write their own papers. We don’t do their work for them.” Whether she was aware of the fraudulent activities within the AFAM department that benefitted basketball players is unknown. McSwain died on July 9, 2004, after a long illness.
According to information that would surface later in 2012 via an article from the Charlotte Observer, Crowder had received $100,000 and some Hummel figurines in 2008 from the estate of Burgess McSwain’s father. The payment was said to have arisen from a “close” friendship Crowder had with Ms. McSwain. The money and items were reported to be in exchange for taking care of the father’s dogs.
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More notable information from the AFAM investigative report surfaced just a few days later via another News and Observer article penned by Dan Kane, which made heavy use of statistics gleaned from the documents. It revealed that football and basketball players accounted for nearly four of every ten students enrolled in fifty-four classes at the heart of the academic fraud investigation. The actual number of athletically-associated enrollments might have even been higher, as trainers, volunteers, and other “support” members of the teams were not identified – only those who were official sports participants. While perhaps shocking to the general public, there were signs beforehand that should have hinted at the news, what with Austin and McAdoo’s earlier transgressions, and then Crowder’s close ties with the basketball program.
Crowder’s presence brought up another huge red flag once the percentage of basketball enrollees was revealed, and led to a topic that few in the media (and none at UNC or even the NCAA) seemed to want to tackle: As previously mentioned, there were unauthorized grade changes. For whom were they changed? Were they for football and/or basketball players? And if so, how did it affect the GPA’s and eventual eligibility of those players? Someone at the university – and likely the AFAM department – changed those grades. A fair line of reasoning to follow up on would be to look at people who had connections and/or a vested interest in the athletic programs. Deborah Crowder unequivocally fit those parameters, especially with the basketball program. Yet the grades of past basketball players were never looked into by the university – or if they were, it was never publicly acknowledged by the university. As explained in an earlier chapter, if players were found to have participated while ineligible, then victories would have to be forfeited. The UNC men’s basketball team won national titles in the very recent years of 2009 and 2005. It also won a title in 1993, which just happened to be the year after Julius Nyang’oro took over as the chairman of the AFAM department. And it won a title in 1982, a team on which Deborah Crowder’s boyfriend, Warren Martin, played. Yet no questions were asked regarding this massive set of coinciding and suggestive information.
According to the News and Observer’s article, university officials say they found no evidence that the suspect classes were part of a plan between Nyang’oro and the athletics department for eligibility-maintaining purposes. And once again the same reasoning was given that Hartlyn and Andrews had used in their report: Student athletes were treated no differently in the classes than students who were not athletes. It should be noted that in the summer of 2011 the university hired a Raleigh public relations firm to help with their handling of the ongoing scandal. As time would go on, more and more people associated with UNC would repeat some of the same phrases over and over again, emphasizing points that would appear to convey less wrongdoing on the university’s part, and thus hopefully keep the NCAA from returning to the school – such as the “student athletes vs. non-student athletes” technicality.
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Former State Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, at the time an attorney, was quoted as saying, “These kids are putting in enormous amounts of time, and in at least some of the sports that are very physically demanding, they are missing a number of classes because of conflicts, and then if they are a marginal student to begin with, you’ve got to send them to Professor Nyang’oro’s class. I think the academic counselors realized that and the tutors realized it and frankly the folks up the food chain for the most part recognized it. But nobody wants to rock the boat because it’s big money.”
Kane’s article went on to further break down the reported enrollments in the suspect classes. Of the 686 students, 246 of the enrollments, or 36 percent, were football players, and 23 enrollments, or three percent, were basketball players, according to UNC. Kane went on to point out that football and basketball players accounted for less than one percent of the total undergraduate enrollment – about 120 of the more than 18,500 undergraduate students on campus – yet they accounted for nearly 40 percent of the enrollments in fraudulent classes.
Some in the social media realm tried to immediately downplay basketball’s involvement, pointing to the relatively low “three percent” statistic (23 enrollments). That argument was statistically flawed, however. The short timeframe of the school’s investigative report into AFAM classes was from 2007 to 2011. During that same time period, there were 26 total scholarship players who participated on the four men’s basketball teams that covered the same timeframe. There are several counterarguments that could shed a different light on that data: If each of those 23 basketball AFAM enrollees only took one fraudulent class apiece, then all but three men’s basketball members from 2007 to 2011 would retroactively lose their eligibility (assuming the academic fraud was appropriately acted upon by the NCAA, or even the university itself). If a group of players took two classes apiece, that would still mean that at least 11 players would retroactively lose their eligibility – 42 percent of the players from 2007 to 2011. In either scenario, the team would be forced to vacate all of its victories during that timeframe – including the 2009 National Championship. So once again, it became increasingly apparent why the university was unwilling to dig any deeper into the AFAM fraud. The basketball team and its past accomplishments were coming close to being placed at the center of the microscope, and those glories were as much a part UNC’s image as any academic reputation had ever been.
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As more dissecting of the university’s investigative report continued, even more questions appeared to be left unanswered. According to the May 7, 2012, article in the News and Observer, university officials could not say why no one brought the suspect classes to their attention before the previous summer. Jonathan Hartlyn and William Andrews, the two UNC academic officials who conducted the probe, did not interview students for the report – despite the fact that they must have known all of the students’ names who were in the classes, as they reportedly had open access to all past records. However, Nancy Davis, a university spokeswoman, said the university’s counsel, Leslie Strohm, and its former faculty athletics representative, Jack Evans, did talk to students. Inexplicably, those interviews were not reflected in the report. As noted before, other information that was not reflected in the report was for whom specific grades were altered. While the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) would prevent the report from naming specific students, it could have very easily indicated whether the grades of athletes were changed – and what effect it had on those athletes’ overall GPA. But once again, that was not pursued by the report’s investigators or by the university as a whole.
Tom Ross, the UNC system president and a graduate of UNC’s School of Law, stated a theme that would be oft-repeated in the coming months by those closely associated with the university: It was time to look forward, and not backwards. He said in a statement that he saw no need to look further into the academic improprieties. “I believe that this was an isolated situation,” Ross said, “and that the campus has taken appropriate steps to correct problems and put additional safeguards in place.” On what information he was basing his assumption that it was an isolated situation, however, was certainly unclear. Hannah Gage, chairman of the UNC System’s Board of Governors and another UNC graduate, said she would not know if the board would be seeking more information until she had talked to others. As pointed out in Chapter Two, UNC graduates held a significantly higher percentage of the BOG seats than any other university in the 16-institution system.
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The essential (and unanswered) questions:
-- Who changed the grades for the students?
-- Who forged the professors’ signatures?
-- Who was ultimately paid for the various classes where the teacher was “unknown?”
-- How many athletes took part in the fraudulent classes, and for which sports?
-- Did those grades affect their GPA’s, and if deemed impermissible, then retroactively their eligibility?
-- Had the matter been pursued, would team wins need to vacated, even if it meant national championships?
-- Even though Deborah Crowder retired in 2009, the fraudulent AFAM anomalies continued for at least two more years. Was Nyang’oro solely responsible? If not, who else played a role in the improprieties now that Crowder was gone?
-- Why did the university and its on-staff investigators refuse to ask the above questions and seek answers in a manner that would appear to uphold the honorable and high standards it had long claimed to hold for the institution?