Friday, November 4, 2016

Tarnished Heels - Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen
Carol Folt; Jan Boxill; James Moeser;
Nyang’oro and Crowder emails; public relations firms

            As the date drew nearer when Holden Thorp would be stepping down as Chancellor, his eventual replacement was announced.  Carol Folt, an environmental scientist who had worked for 30 years at Dartmouth College (including nearly a year as interim president), was tabbed to take over UNC’s top spot.  Based on quotes and details in an April 13, 2013, News and Observer article covering a reception held in Folt’s honor, she indicated that she was excited about her new duties.  “It’s the honor of a lifetime,” she said.  “I just can’t tell you how it feels.  It’s a little bit of a dream state.”  Folt said she had been on a tour of the campus, and that she and her husband had caught “Tar Heel fever” when they attended a Duke-UNC basketball game the previous month.  She did, however, allude to some of the issues that had plagued the school over the prior several years.  Referencing perspective, optimism, and opportunity, she said: “That’s what will carry us through the tough times.”  Indeed, she wouldn’t have long to wait for more “tough times” to surface.
* * *
            The previous chapter discussed requests for public documents, and the often difficult obstacles the media had faced to get many of its requests fulfilled.  Several documents were released in May, however, and they led to more discoveries of possible improprieties.  According to a May 18, 2013, article in the News and Observer, a key UNC report from a year earlier had purposely omitted substantial information that would have painted athletics in a much more critical light.
            In July of 2012 a special faculty report on the academic fraud (initially discussed in Chapter Eight) suggested that academic counselors may have steered athletes to fraudulent classes in the AFAM department.  A request by the newspaper for emails and other correspondence related to that report had finally been filled by the school, and the details revealed some interesting final-day edits.  Earlier drafts of the report (but not the final version) had specifically mentioned Deborah Crowder, the former assistant in the AFAM department, and also noted her connections to athletics. 
            The earlier draft had the following statement:  “Although we may never know for certain, the involvement of Debbie Crowder seems to have been that of an athletic supporter who managed to use the system to ‘help’ players; she was extremely close to personnel in athletics.”   However, documentation showed that Jan Boxill, chairwoman of the school’s Faculty Executive Committee and also a former academic counselor for athletes, wanted the statement cut because in her opinion it amounted to hearsay.  She told the authors of the report that other professors, whom she did not identify, raised that concern.  The final version did in fact make a change and read as follows:  “Although we may never know for certain, it was our impression from multiple interviews that a department staff member managed to use the system to help players by directing them to enroll in courses in the African and Afro-American Studies department that turned out to be aberrant or irregularly taught.”  The final version had no specific mention of Crowder, and more importantly no mention of her being “extremely close” to athletics. 
            The May 18 N&O article went on to make it clear that the information about Crowder was not hearsay.  Crowder’s ties to the athletics department had been reported by the paper in June of 2012, and were also later acknowledged in the Martin report.  As mentioned earlier, Martin never interviewed Crowder.  He had, however, received both versions of the faculty report in question.  Why no mention of Boxill’s requested edit was ever made in his report is unknown.  Furthermore, other records showed numerous bogus classes that appeared to have been set up by Crowder.  Athletes accounted for all but eight of the 56 students enrolled in nine specific classes.  Those enrollments included 31 football players and eight basketball players, all of which further cemented the “not hearsay” stance of the newspaper.  It was extremely unclear, therefore, why the authors of the faculty report gave in to Boxill’s request.  More details on the matter would surface several months in the future, however.
* * *
            As Holden Thorp’s tenure as chancellor continued to draw to its end, more controversy arose, but this time by his own doing.  He had said in April of 2013 that he felt college presidents had pressing demands and therefore should leave sports to athletics directors.  That rubbed many people the wrong way, especially at UNC.  Hodding Carter III was a UNC professor and former Knight Foundation president.  The goal of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics was to ensure that intercollegiate athletics programs operated within the educational mission of their colleges and universities.  In a May 19, 2013, N&O article, Carter acknowledged that college sports can take a leader down fast, but said that Thorp’s proposal was way off base.  “You really have got to get control of (big-time college sports), but you don’t get control of it by letting the guy who raised Godzilla become the person who now is supposed to supervise Godzilla, and that’s what the athletic directors are, and the conference guys.”
            Thorp indicated that he knew his suggestion would cause waves.  “Bill Friday’s ghost and Hodding Carter and all those people are ready to kill me,” he said.  “They don’t admit that their presidential control idea didn’t work.”  It certainly hadn’t worked in the case of Thorp, the newspaper wrote, who said he took the job with no idea about the athletics minefield ahead.  Too often, Thorp said, he found himself in front of microphones trying to explain the various scandals and pledging to fix them. 
            Looking back, Thorp said he would have done some things differently.  “But it’s always easy to see those things at the end,” he said.  “It’s real easy to look at somebody else’s crisis and know what to do.  It’s a whole different deal when you have a big bureaucratic organization, trying to make quick decisions and getting people on board.”  And “a big bureaucratic organization” was a good analogy for UNC’s leadership over the previous three years of problems.
            The academic scandal in the African Studies department was perhaps the most embarrassing episode to Thorp, but it did have one good result, he said: that a myth had been deconstructed.  “It was a failure of lots of people over a lot of years to detect it,” he said.  “I think that was fueled by this notion that these kinds of things didn’t happen here.”  As for Carol Folt, the woman who would be taking over his position in a couple of months, Thorp had a specific suggestion for her:  Watch the TV drama “Friday Night Lights.”  Thorp said he wished he had watched it five years ago, because an education about athletics would have come in handy.
* * *
During this same timeframe Holden Thorp’s predecessor also spoke up.  James Moeser was chancellor at the school from 2000 to 2008, which incidentally happened to be some of the prime years of the athletic/academic scandal.  Displaying an obstinate loyalty to his former employer, Moeser voiced his displeasure over the media’s coverage of the academic scandal that had involved countless UNC athletes.
            In a mid-May interview in the Chapel Hill Magazine, Moeser said: “I’m really angry about (the media).  I think they target people, and they take pleasure in bringing people down.  I think their real goal here was to remove banners from the Smith Center.”  As the complaints were seemingly directed at the Raleigh News and Observer, which had been unyielding in its coverage of UNC’s various athletic scandals over the previous three years, Moeser’s interview was given attention in a May 20, 2013, article by the newspaper.  The remarks were part of a short article in which Moeser defended “The Carolina Way,” wrote reporter Dan Kane.  That term had become a motto for the university and had formally been a source of pride and chest-thumping from both its alums and nonaffiliated sports fans.  It had recently taken a beating amid the various scandals, however.
            When Moeser referred to the “banners” in the Smith Center, he was undoubtedly talking about the three National Championships that were won by the men’s basketball teams – teams which featured numerous players who majored in an African and Afro-American Studies department that had been proven to be rampant with academic fraud.  Despite the apparently obvious connections between those championships and the proven bogus classes and degrees, Moeser seemed more concerned with defending an ideal.  “I think (the media) has really put a target on the university,” Moeser had told the Chapel Hill Magazine, “and they’ve treated The Carolina Way in a very cynical fashion, trashing it, really, and indicating The Carolina Way was always just a fiction, a façade we put in front of misbehavior.  I really resent that.  I think The Carolina Way is genuine, I think it’s real.” 
            John Drescher, executive editor of the N&O, disputed Moeser’s take on the media coverage.  He provided several quotes for Kane’s article, and would follow up with an editorial the next day.  In Kane’s May 20 piece, Drescher said, “We weren’t trying to get anybody, but we were trying to get to the bottom of what happened at UNC.  Most of our readers understood that and appreciate the digging we did.”  Others in the media also supported the N&O’s work.  John Robinson, the former editor of The (Greensboro) News & Record, wrote in his blog, “Media disrupted,” that Moeser didn’t understand the media’s job in an open society.  “What actually has happened is that the N&O discovered some rot in the internal workings at UNC in athletics and academia and, like an infection in the body, you have to keep going after it to get rid of it all,” Robinson wrote.  “That’s what the N&O has done and is still doing.”
            Even some of the faculty at the university said Moeser’s remarks were misguided, Kane’s article stated.  Michael Hunt, a history professor emeritus, said Moeser may have been reacting to the criticism leveled by rival fans.  “He may be reflecting the embattled feeling that the administrators are feeling,” Hunt said.  “The problem is they are dragging this out, and I don’t think anybody is saying – I haven’t heard a word saying – ‘Oh, the N&O’s persecuting Chapel Hill.’ Nobody is saying that except for the people who are trying to keep the lid on.”  Moeser himself could not be reached for comment.
            A scathing and direct editorial by executive editor John Drescher came out a day later.  In it he countered Moeser, and said the former chancellor had taken up a tactic usually preferred by losing politicians: saying “they’re out to get us.”  When responding to the accusation that the media was trying to bring people (and banners) down, Drescher had this to say: “Moeser’s wrong, obviously.  If the media were any good at targeting people, they would have targeted him.  His successor, Holden Thorp, took over before the scandals broke and ended up taking the heat (and the fall) for problems that festered under his predecessor.”
            Drescher went on to allude to the “Carolina Way” that Moeser had opined about.  “UNC’s reputation for academic quality and aboveboard athletics has taken a hard hit.  The damage has been made far worse by the failure of university leaders to admit problems and search relentlessly for where the trouble began and where it spread.”  Finally, the executive editor reached the heart of the matter by way of a statement that could have been said about countless UNC, Board of Trustees, and Board of Governors leaders over the past three years:  “But what is Moeser angry about?  Not about what happened or how it has been handled.  He’s angry about what got reported.  He thinks reporting that seeks to find the extent of the problems is a mean-spirited effort to strip a proud university of its greatest athletic laurels, the banners from its national men’s basketball titles.  No, it’s an attempt to do what universities also should do: Seek the truth.”
* * *
More damaging information would surface less than three weeks later, and again it was due to the school (finally) releasing public information that they had long tried to conceal.  A set of newly released emails was the focus of a June 8, 2013, article in the News and Observer, and a key confirmation was the very close relationship former AFAM chairman Julius Nyang’oro had with the program that tutored athletes.  The emails in question were released by the university as part of a public records request that had been filed nearly a year earlier.  Inexplicably, none of the details within the correspondence had shown up in the numerous investigations conducted since the school confirmed the existence of the fraudulent courses in May 2012, the paper wrote.  That was once again proof that Martin and Baker Tilley either never checked the emails of Nyang’oro and Crowder, or that the emails were checked and summarily ignored.
UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp and other officials had long said that the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes had not collaborated with anyone in the AFAM department to create the classes that helped to keep athletes eligible to play sports.  Some of the emails strongly suggested otherwise.  One of the exchanges was between Nyang’oro and Jaimie Lee, an academic counselor for athletes.  “I failed to mention yesterday that Swahili 403 last summer was offered as a research paper course,” wrote Lee.  “I meant to (ask), do you think this may happen again in the future?? If not the summer, maybe the fall?”  To which Nyang’oro responded:  “Driving a hard bargain; should have known… :) Will have to think about this, but talk to me….”  Nyang’oro did not schedule the Swahili class, but he did create another one for the summer.  Later that day he emailed Lee informing her of the new class.  Those discussed courses had shown up as ones that should have been taught lecture-style, but had instead been turned into “paper” classes that only required a term paper at the end.
One of the university’s long-standing talking points was that non-athletes took the fraudulent classes as well, which should keep the scandal out of the NCAA’s realm.  School officials said that it wasn’t only athletes who benefitted from the bogus classes.  However, other parts of the email records may have provided a clue as to why non-athletes were in some of the classes.  In early 2005, administrative assistant Deborah Crowder raised concerns that too many students were seeking to enroll in independent studies within her department.  She had told one advising official that word about the department’s independent studies “had sort of gotten into the frat circuit.”  That would seem to imply that the preference was for the courses to be reserved for a very specific subset of UNC’s student population, because as the records showed, the largest percentage taking the courses was athletes.  Considering Crowder’s close ties to athletics (and especially the men’s basketball program), the emails show the distinct possibility that “regular” students signed up for multiple fraudulent AFAM courses against the preferences of athletes at UNC.
            As usual, school officials largely chose to avoid the newly uncovered revelations.  Attempts by the N&O to reach Thorp and Karen Gil, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences (which oversaw advising and the African Studies department), were unsuccessful.  A UNC spokeswoman, Karen Moon, said the newly released correspondence contained no “new information” about the Academic Support Program for Athletes.  But Peter Hans, the chairman of the UNC System Board of Governors, disagreed.  “This is additional confirmation that there was far too cozy a relationship between the academic advisers in the athletic department and Nyang’oro and Crowder,” Hans said.
            Jaimie Lee still worked for the school’s support program at the time of the article, but could not be reached for comment.  Like Deborah Crowder, Lee also had interesting connections.  Before joining UNC as a counselor, she worked for a charitable nonprofit founded by former UNC basketball players, the newspaper reported. 
            The new emails also showed that a tutor, Suzanne Dirr, had drawn up “topic” papers for athletes that were virtual outlines of papers they would have to write for classes.  Interestingly, Dirr submitted her suggested topics to Crowder for approval – despite the fact that Crowder was not a faculty member, but only an administrative assistant.  Crowder’s importance to the AFAM department (and the UNC athletic infrastructure) continued to become more and more evident with each new set of released information.  Dirr died in 2008; Crowder continued to decline numerous requests for interviews.
            Madeline Levine, a former interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, said she was appalled to see how much work the tutors had done for the athletes in those classes.  “It looks really corrupt, academically corrupt, to me,” said Levine, who is now retired.  She was also troubled by the tone of the emails between Nyang’oro and various academic counselors.  Levine said that while some of it might have been in jest, it suggested a relationship in which Nyang’oro was doing favors for the counselors.  In one email from September 2009, Cynthia Reynolds, a former associate director who oversaw academic support for football players, told Nyang’oro in an email that “I hear you are doing me a big favor this semester and that I should be bringing you lots of gifts and cash???????”  She also suggested that she and Nyang’oro talk about students’ assignments via “phone call, meeting or drinks, whichever you prefer.” 
            The article reported that on three occasions the records showed that Nyang’oro and his family were offered football tickets and food.  In one email, Reynolds told the former AFAM chairman he would be “guest coaching,” which meant that he could watch the game with the team on the sidelines.  Reynolds left the program in 2010.  An earlier chapter recounted her claim that she had been the victim of age discrimination.  She could not be reached for the article.
            The “no comment” approach continued to be the status quo, as was the practice of dodging questions by university officials.  Beth Bridger, who replaced Reynolds and also showed up in emails, could not be reached for comment.  UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon would not specify who among the various investigators into the academic fraud scandal had received the Crowder and Nyang’oro correspondence given to the News and Observer.  Moon said it was “considered during past investigations, in which the university cooperated fully.”  She also did not explain why it took nearly a year to produce the emails for the N&O.
            Perhaps the most important aspect of the new emails was that they did not represent the entire record.  Karen Moon said other correspondence had been withheld because of student privacy concerns or because it was a personnel matter.  The university could have released additional correspondence with redactions to protect student identities, the newspaper pointed out, or UNC could make the personnel information public under a provision in state law that allowed its release to protect the integrity of the institution. The school chose to not make those efforts, however.  That was likely as telling as the actual emails that were released.
* * *
            Signs had long pointed to a unified “public relations” front by the school, as officials associated with UNC (and even entities such as the System’s Board of Governors) had parroted some of the same catch phrases when commenting on the athletic/academic scandals.  An article published by the News and Observer on June 8, 2013, finally gave some clear evidence as to why those talking points had been so similar.  Public documents that had been released showed that there had been a dedicated PR and communications effort over the previous two years that had cost the university more than $500,000.
            The breakdown of those bills was as follows:  The Fleishman-Hillard firm received $367,000 for 22 months of work; Doug Sosnik, an NBA consultant, received $144,000 for 10 months’ work; and Sheehan Associates of Washington, D.C., received nearly $20,000 for work performed on “two occasions,” a university official said.  As was the case with the nearly one million dollars that was paid to the Baker Tilley firm during the Martin investigation, the university’s privately funded foundation paid for all of those PR costs.
            Some of the specific correspondence between Sosnik and the university was especially revealing.  A former counselor to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky embarrassment, the key message Sosnik wanted reinforced at UNC was that the school’s scandal was in the past; the university had made reforms and would become stronger as a result.  Records also showed that UNC administrators, with the help of Sosnik and a member of Fleishman-Hillard, fought back when Mary Willingham told the News and Observer that school staff had used no-show classes to keep athletes eligible.  The school administrators and public relations consultants reviewed and offered edits to a letter to the N&O editorial page written by Steve Kirschner, an athletics department spokesman.  The letter sought to refute Willingham’s claims.  Furthermore, some of the correspondence showed that UNC trustee Don Curtis and Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham didn’t think the NCAA would dig into the academic fraud after former Governor Jim Martin’s investigation concluded that it was an academic scandal and not an athletic scandal.
* * *
            According to a June 20, 2013, article in the News and Observer, UNC was handed down a lenient response from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS), which had earlier been on campus following the revelation of academic fraud within the AFAM department.  It was announced that the school would be monitored in the future, but not sanctioned.  Other details were that 384 students who took fraudulent classes from 1997 to 2009 would be given the opportunity to “make whole” their academic degrees.  Specific information regarding the method of completing those degrees was said to be forthcoming.
            Some on campus were appalled by the lack of action by the accrediting agency, the paper noted.  “It’s amazing.  I guess the flagship gets off the hook,” said Mary Willingham, the UNC reading specialist who used to work with athletes and who had been outspoken about the problems at the school.  “For me, it’s getting to the point where power is so much more important than justice.”
* * *
            As the month of June slowly came to an end, one more important article was released regarding the academic situation at UNC.  A June 29, 2013, piece by N&O reporter Dan Kane focused on the academic performance by the school’s athletes, and the stark drop that had happened over the previous several years.  According to recent academic progress statistics from the NCAA, the paper reported, UNC’s men’s basketball team – at one point the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a near perfect Academic Progress Rate (APR) score – had fallen to eighth place.  The school’s football team had recently been just a few academic points away from losing postseason eligibility.  Both teams had just scored their all-time lows on the APR.  UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham and other officials declined to be interviewed for the article.  Not surprisingly, the years that UNC’s basketball and football teams scored well on the APR were ones in which athletes had been taking dozens of fraudulent classes within the AFAM department.  With that in mind, it could hardly be considered an unexpected coincidence that the APR score dropped following the exposure of the university’s athletic/academic scandal.
* * *
The essential (and unanswered) questions:
-- Why did the faculty authors of a July 2012 report allow their wording (in reference to Deborah Crowder) to be changed?
-- Other than free tickets and food, did Julius Nyang’oro receive any other gifts from athletic personnel in exchange for academic favors?
-- Why would Crowder be concerned that frat students were signing up for AFAM independent studies courses?
-- Why did athletic tutor Suzanne Dirr submit paper topics directly to Crowder – who wasn’t even a faculty member?
-- Why did none of the school’s prior investigations mention the revealing and damaging email exchanges conducted by Nyang’oro and/or Crowder?

-- Why did the university refuse to release the remainder of the Nyang’oro and Crowder emails, even in redacted form?