Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Tarnished Heels -- Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven
Martin investigation announced; Robert Mercer,
Harold Woodard, and Vince Ille

            Following the inadvertent release of Julius Peppers’ transcript, the university’s leaders seemed to quickly realize that they had a big problem on their hands.  A decade’s worth of grades were now overwhelmingly considered suspect in at least one department, with more questions mounting by the day.  The Peppers transcript was uncovered on August 12, 2012.  Just four days later on August 16, the school announced a new investigation that would look even further into the past than the limited “2007” review had done earlier in the year.  On the surface the university touted the new investigation as one that would have no limitations and would aggressively root out any past problems.  A closer inspection, however, would lead to serious doubts of those claims.
            An article published in the Raleigh News and Observer on August 16, 2012, helped to announce the upcoming investigation.  UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp had been under increasing pressure from both the media and the general public to dig deeper into the school’s academic fraud scandal that had recently multiplied in severity and drawn national attention as a result.  On that Thursday Thorp said he was bringing in former North Carolina governor Jim Martin, along with a national management consulting firm, to look for “any additional academic irregularities that may have occurred.”  The firm, formerly known as Virchow, Krause & Co. before going on to operate under the name of Baker Tilley, would help to conduct an audit to try and find out whether the no-show classes and poorly supervised independent studies found earlier that year in the AFAM department extended beyond the initial four-year period that had been examined.  “Obviously a lot of people are concerned that our review didn’t go back far enough,” Thorp said, “and we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re not going to satisfy people’s interest in that if we don’t have an objective firm and an objective individual.”  Just how objective the individual tabbed to head the investigation would be, however, was immediately a contested matter – and would continue to be so long after the results were finally released. 
            Jim Martin was 76 years old when tabbed to lead the investigation into UNC’s academic scandal that widely involved major-sport athletes.  He had spent a career in politics, and had no specific investigative experience.  He had served North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives for six terms, and also two terms as North Carolina governor – giving him plenty of political connections in the state.  He had also served a term on the UNC Board of Governors, an entity that had historically shown a very high percentage of UNC graduates and influence.
            Martin at one time served on the Board of Directors of a group called the Carolina Business Coalition.  According to its website, it was a strategic organization that carried out a number of objectives designed to benefit North Carolina businesses and the state’s economy.  Its Board of Directors consisted of ten members.  Of the ten, only two did not have direct academic connections to the University of North Carolina.  One of those two, David H. Murdock was the CEO of the Dole Food Company and was a high school dropout prior to being drafted into World War II.  Former Governor Martin was the other, having graduated from nearby Davidson College.  The remaining eight members of the close-knit board were all graduates in one form or another of UNC.  One of the members who attended the UNC School of Law, Roger W. Knight, had also previously served as legal counsel to Jim Martin in 1985-86 while Martin was governor.
There were other past ties between Martin and the school.  He had previously chaired an advisory panel to UNC’s Nutrition Research Institute at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, NC.  Furthermore, there had also been a Merit Scholarship established in his name at UNC in the fall of 1999.  The “Gov. James G. and Dottie Martin Carolina Scholar Award” was established by Jim and Mary McNab.  Jim McNab had received his MBA from UNC in 1968.  The McNab’s daughter had graduated from the university in 1999 and went on to start law school there that fall as well.
            An even more direct potential conflict of interest was the revelation that Martin was the chairman of the Board of Directors for the Institute for Defense and Business, a nonprofit that helped the military apply business principles and technology to do a better job.  The UNC associations again dealt with fellow Board members, one of whom was none other than Holden Thorp – the then-current Chancellor at UNC who had just chosen Martin to lead the investigation into Thorp’s school.  Other members included Roger Perry, a former UNC trustee, as well as James Moeser, the former Chancellor of UNC from 2000-2008 – the primary years that spanned the school’s ongoing academic scandal.  The board for the Institute for Defense and Business was based in Chapel Hill, the home town of UNC.
            While none of those many connections necessarily proved collusion, they did show a stark difference in the approach that UNC took to its festering scandal when compared to the issues of other schools in the recent past.  Yahoo! Sports writer Pat Forde had recently mentioned the Penn State case when wondering what disciplinary actions the NCAA would take against UNC’s academic infractions.  Penn State had opened its doors and records to Louis Freeh, the former director of the FBI.  Freeh was unaffiliated with Penn State and had a vast background in criminal investigation.  UNC could have sent a similar message that they desired to know the full truth of their past.  Instead, they chose a former politician with multiple close relationships to associates of the university, both past and present.  From the very first stages of the investigation’s announcement, those in the media and general public who had been critical of UNC’s blatant lack of transparency and cooperation once again displayed doubt in the university’s desire to root out the true depths of the improprieties.  Those doubts would in part eventually be justified, as documents released many months later would show just how limited the “investigative” aspect of Martin’s on-campus tenure had truly been.
* * *
            According to the same News and Observer article, Chancellor Thorp indicated that once the audit of prior classes was completed, the Baker Tilley firm would also review numerous reforms that had been put in place to make sure the academic fraud didn’t happen again.  Once more, the same recurring public relations message was subtly delivered: look onward to prevent future problems, as opposed to clearly identifying the reasons behind the improprieties of the past.  Thorp also said that Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, would come to the campus to help assess the relationship between athletics and academics and find ways to improve it.  There would also be a university restructuring of the academic support unit for student athletes, including removing a line of authority between the unit and the athletics department.  The unit would instead now answer solely to the College of Arts & Sciences.
            The same newspaper article quoted Thorp as saying, “I’m totally devoted to this place and feel like we have to do whatever it takes to get us past this, and I think that the things that we are announcing today will.”  Thorp had earlier been criticized by at least one member of the UNC Board of Governors, former State Supreme Court Justice Burley Mitchell, for failing to dig deeply into the scandal.  A member of the school’s campus, UNC history professor Jay Smith, had also been outspoken about the need for a deeper investigation in order to protect the university’s academic integrity.  The examples of Mitchell and Smith were few and far between, however, as had been the case throughout much of the scandal.  Few associated with leadership entities such as the Board of Governors or the university’s Board of Trustees had publicly shown passionate concern, and even fewer UNC faculty members appeared to care about the damage to the school’s image.  That would be a woeful display that would continue well into 2014.
* * *
            An article released by the News and Observer two days later, on August 18, 2012, revealed some very telling facts regarding the amount of information that the university had been withholding from the media, as well as for how long.  According to the article, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp had said in an interview that the school had reviewed some transcripts as part of its investigation from earlier that year and found dozens of classes in the African Studies department in which students, a majority of them athletes, did not have to show up.  Thorp would not be more specific about what kinds of transcripts were looked at and what was discovered.  Furthermore, the university had also not produced any information for the public that indicated UNC had undertaken a comprehensive inquiry into the types of classes taken by athletes and the grades they received.  This, despite the fact that transcripts of two prominent former athletes – Marvin Austin and Julius Peppers – had shown likely widespread academic fraud.
            For two years, beginning in 2010, university officials had declined to provide the News and Observer with athlete transcripts.  The newspaper had asked for the documents with the personal information removed, such as the names and any other identifying details of the students.  Despite the fact that the university had access to all of those records, and they also knew of the academic fraud, they refused.  According to the newspaper, transcript information, if provided, would have shown whether there were “clusters of classes, disparities in grades, favored professors, and other such details at a university where a faculty report issued last month described a ‘campus with two cultures,’ one academic, one athletic.”
            Jon Ericson, the former provost at Drake University, indicated that if there was more openness and transparency about classes, professors, and grades, it would help expose which departments and classes were serving to protect athletes’ eligibility.  “If the faculty and the administrators and the athletic directors knew that the grades and the courses would be public, there wouldn’t be courses to be embarrassed about,” he said.  Ericson and Minnesota lawyer Matthew Salzwedel had argued that universities could release much more information than they currently did about athletes’ performances in the classroom.  But schools don’t, they argue, because administrators incorrectly cite federal privacy law and did not want to address academic “corruption” in college athletics.  “Without (full) disclosure,” they wrote in the Dartmouth Law Review in 2010, “isolated disclosures of academic corruption in college athletics by whistleblowers are treated as anecdotes, easily dismissed and often ridiculed.  After all, no one likes a spoilsport.”  While that was perhaps a partial excuse for the complete silence from almost everyone associated with the UNC faculty, it was in no way a moral justification of the muteness – especially from a school and faculty that claimed to pride itself on doing things “the right way.”
* * *
            As stated earlier, the News and Observer first sought transcript information – with personal identifiers deleted – in late 2010.  In early 2011, the university denied that request, saying that classes taken by athletes, even with names and other personal details deleted, might still be “easily traceable” back to the athlete and violate their privacy.  “Our student athletes attend class with other students on campus,” Regina Stabile, UNC’s director of institutional records and reporting compliance, had written in a memo at the time.  “That means that many students on campus know which student athletes were in a particular section of a particular course.  Knowing the specific courses taken and the order in which they were taken could too easily provide all the clues needed to match a de-identified transcript with a specific student-athlete.”  Of course, since that statement was made prior to the unveiling of dozens of no-show courses where attendance was not required and classes never actually met, it would eventually be viewed in an extremely ironic and humorous light.
            Matthew Salzwedel, a former tennis player at Drake who chose to publish his own academic transcript in a law review article, said that the particular “protective” approach Regina Stabile and UNC had employed was typical of universities that sought to protect big-time athletics.  “It simply isn’t credible for UNC to say that because other students (many of whom are long gone from UNC) might be able to discern individual athlete’s transcripts, the redacted transcripts cannot be produced to you, a reporter,” he told the Raleigh newspaper.  “In addition, there should be no federal privacy protections for classes because, even as UNC admits, any student can watch an athlete walk into class.”
            Following the university’s refusal to fill the newspaper’s request in early 2011, a subsequent entreaty of the data was submitted in a different format altogether.  That new request sought classes taken and grades earned for teams, asking UNC to organize the information not in the form of each athlete’s transcript but instead by showing it for each semester.  Well over a year later, that request was still pending at the time of the August 18, 2012, article.  On top of the long amount of time that had already passed, Chancellor Thorp additionally said he would not consider the request again until the special audit/investigation was completed.
            As the first full week following the revelation of Julius Peppers’ transcript came to a close, Chancellor Thorp had written a letter to trustees, faculty, and staff that said, “Our focus every day remains on fixing the problems and ensuring they never happen again.”  Once again, one of UNC’s main “public relations” talking points was front and center – to make sure the future was safe, as opposed to finding out what exactly happened in the past, and (most importantly) why.  According to the News and Observer, Thorp also announced the new inquiries in that same letter, including the audit that he said would review “any additional academic irregularities that may have occurred.”  It was not otherwise clear what the scope or depth of the new audit would be, and no specific time frame was given for when it would be complete.
* * *
            On August 21, 2012, another article appeared in the ever-vigilant News and Observer, pointing out a key employee reassignment that had recently taken place at UNC.  When Chancellor Holden Thorp had announced a reorganization of the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes the previous week, he said the school had installed an interim director and was searching for a new, permanent one.  According to the article, what Thorp did not say was what happened to the man who had held that director job for nearly a decade, Robert Mercer. 
          Mercer had been moved to a new position, outside of athletic advising, as a “special assistant for operations” at a center for undergraduate excellence, according to N&O reporter Dan Kane.  Mercer’s former boss, Harold Woodard (who was the person serving as interim director at the time), said Mercer had done nothing wrong.  Instead, Woodard indicated that the issues that had arisen and built from the academic fraud investigation required a search for a “national” leader to run the program.  “It’s not about Robert, it really isn’t,” said Woodard, who was also an associate dean in charge of the university’s academic support program for undergraduate students.  “It’s really about this opportunity for Carolina to claim the mantle of operating a model program.”  Yet another important aspect that was not mentioned, however, was Robert Mercer’s close association with the scheduling of certain athletes’ classes.  The previous chapter discussed the PRAC scheduling assignments, and how Wayne Walden had been responsible for the vast majority of the semesters for the men’s basketball team.  There was at least one occasion, however – the fall of 2008 – where Robert Mercer was listed on the PRAC schedule as being responsible for the men’s basketball team.  That semester also happened to fall within the university’s initial investigative parameter of the AFAM program that had uncovered over 50 fraudulent courses.
            A letter was sent from Woodard to Mercer earlier in the month of August 2012 notifying him of the change in employment status.  It stated that Mercer had been reassigned to the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, which handled honors programs and undergraduate research.  “You will be referred to as the special assistant for operations and will assist with the facility and its operation, programming and other duties, as assigned,” the letter said.  Mercer would continue to make the same annual salary as before the reassignment, which was $81,900.  He had been Director of the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes since October 2002, and had worked in the program as an administrator since 1996.  All of those years would eventually fall under suspect of academic fraud.
            The school’s Academic Support Program for Student Athletes had garnered some unwanted attention in the UNC faculty report that had been released earlier in 2012.  As mentioned previously, that report had said an unidentified “departmental staff manager” within African Studies may have directed athletes to enroll in the no-show classes, and that “it seems likely” someone in the department was calling counselors for athletes to tell them “certain courses” were available.  “We were told that athletes claimed they had been sent to Julius Nyang’oro (by the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes),” the report said.  Harold Woodard, Mercer’s boss and the interim director who sent the letter of reassignment to Mercer, told the newspaper that he knew nothing about past claims of steering athletes to certain AFAM courses.  “I’m not aware of what was happening in that department, and that’s probably a good thing because it allows me to focus on where we want to take the staff during the interim,” Woodard had said.  A curious side note, however, was that Woodard had been a lecturer in the Curriculum of African-American Studies at UNC in the early 1990’s – the exact same time period when Julius Nyang’oro was rapidly ascending to the position of chairman of the department.
* * *
            Several other employee alterations were covered in that August 21, 2012 article by the News and Observer, though the full gravity of some of the scenarios would not be fully realized until later.  A month earlier, Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham had announced a new senior associate director, Vince Ille, who had previously worked at the University of Illinois.  Chancellor Thorp later said that part of Ille’s job would be as a liaison between academic advisers who helped athletes pick classes, and separate academic counselors who made sure athletes were doing their school work and progressing toward degrees, as the NCAA required.  Ille also would supervise the department’s NCAA compliance efforts.
            Documents released over a year later would eventually disclose more information on Ille.  During his time at his previous job with the University of Illinois he had worked as a compliance officer with an individual named Jackie Thurnes.  Ille had personally hired Thurnes while at Illinois.  Ille would eventually take a job at UNC to become the university’s top compliance officer for NCAA matters.  Jackie Thurnes, though, would eventually leave Illinois to become an enforcement official with the NCAA itself.  Those later-released documents showed continued email contact between the two former co-workers – one now working for UNC, the other working for the NCAA.
* * *
            The Raleigh News and Observer published an article on August 31, 2012, that was largely based on quotes and updates from various university officials regarding the ongoing scandal.  As was now seemingly the norm any time UNC officials gave public statements, there was always plenty of mention of the future, while trying to avoid digging up too much of the past.  According to the newspaper article written by reporter Jane Stancill, those UNC officials had met with a Board of Governors’ review panel earlier in the week, and their goal was clear:  “Deans, faculty members, department heads and Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham lined up to convince (the review panel) that they would do whatever it takes to recover from perhaps the campus’ worst academic and athletic scandal.”  Those university officials pledged more faculty involvement in athletics, a revamped African Studies department, new oversight rules for academic administrators, changes to the tutoring program for athletes, and a strategic plan for the university’s entire sports enterprise.  Noticeably not pledged, however, was the uncovering of the specific reasons why the academic fraud had happened in the first place.
            The panel associated with the Board of Governors was just one of several entities looking into the school’s problems, the article stated.  UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp gave a brief update on the newly-formed Martin Investigation, but his choice of words left a good deal of flexibility in terms of their ultimate meaning.  Thorp said he had met with former Governor Martin about three days prior, and Thorp had told Martin he was free to examine any data and talk with faculty, staff, and students as he deemed necessary.  A specific goal (of the examination of data) was never stated, nor were specific documents (such as past athlete transcripts) deemed “absolutely necessary” in terms of being a part of the search parameter.  And history would later reveal, in fact, that Martin and his team ultimately didn’t look into key and obvious pieces of data that would have provided answers to many of the lingering questions.  Instead, they apparently searched only where they “deemed necessary.”  Those critical details of the failed investigation, however, would not be divulged to the media and the general public until mid-2013, well after its conclusion.
* * *
            Bubba Cunningham, UNC’s athletics director, said that at the time of the August 31 article the university had 720 student athletes in 28 sports.  Among the upperclassmen, 34 different academic majors were represented.  Only two majored in African and Afro-American Studies.  That was a far cry from just a few years prior.  According to the Indianapolis Star article that was thoroughly covered in the previous chapter, a large percentage of UNC men’s basketball players had majored in AFAM during the 1990’s and especially the 2000’s – years when the program won three national titles.  When the Star article publicly drew attention to the “clustering” of the UNC basketball players, the number of AFAM majors would oddly begin to take a sharp and significant drop.
            Even though AFAM was no longer apparently chosen by athletes as a preferred major, that did not necessarily mean fraud was no longer taking place, however.  Students could still sign up for multiple AFAM courses no matter their major.  For example, the General Education curriculum at UNC was known as the “Making Connections” program.  According to information on the university’s official website, that program was divided into four broad categories known as “Foundations,” “Approaches,” “Connections,” and “Supplement Education.”  The program was essentially the first year or two of a student’s college career.  It required a student to take a number of “elective” courses that would be in addition to the classes the student would take within his/her major, though some overlapping would appear likely to occur.  Of those extra courses, multiple classes could have come from the AFAM department based on the parameters of the four above-noted categories – no matter the student’s stated major.
            The article closed with more comments from Thorp, all containing the same well-crafted theme and message that university officials had been pushing for months.  He reiterated his promise to clean up the situation once and for all.  “I am determined that we will fix this and that it will never happen again,” Thorp said.  “Nothing is more important than restoring confidence in this university that we all love.”
* * *
            Another article appeared on August 31, 2012, but this one was carried by  As was the case with many of the ESPN articles that covered UNC during the multi-year scandal, it seemed to reflect a more positive bias on the unfolding events.  Coincidentally or not, ESPN’s president – John Skipper – graduated from UNC.  That August 31 article was based on a statement that UNC had released earlier that day, and one that would hold a great amount of future scrutiny and importance.  According to the school’s statement, the NCAA had told UNC officials that the university apparently did not break NCAA rules surrounding the school’s African and Afro-American Studies department.  UNC, which (according to the school) first notified the NCAA that it had identified potential academic issues involving student athletes in AFAM courses in late 2011, updated the NCAA enforcement staff on August 23 about the situation.  As pointed out several paragraphs above, Jackie Thurnes was an enforcement official with the NCAA, who had formerly worked with UNC’s top compliance officer on NCAA matters, Vince Ille.  The two had previously worked closely together at the University of Illinois.  Whether Thurnes was one of the NCAA officials involved (either directly or indirectly) in the late August updates was unknown.
            “The NCAA staff reaffirmed to university officials that no NCAA rules appeared to have been broken,” the school said in its statement.  As noted in an earlier chapter, an article by Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports stated that no specific rules or by-laws were broken by Penn State, either, yet the NCAA chose to heavily penalize them because the case had a direct effect on the university’s athletic superstructure.  He alluded that the same was unequivocally true at UNC.  Academic fraud had occurred that directly affected athletes, and the NCAA had plenty of precedence to issue a punishment.  At the very least, there was overwhelming data to justify a new NCAA investigation into everything that had been discovered in 2012. 
            The ESPN article said that according to UNC’s released statement, an NCAA enforcement staff member made “several” trips to Chapel Hill in the fall of 2011 and found “no violations of current NCAA rules or student athlete eligibility issues related to courses in African and Afro-American Studies.”  The timeframe of those fall 2011 trips predated numerous vital events in the evolution of the academic scandal, however.  The initial university report of the AFAM improprieties wasn’t released until the late spring of 2012, where over 50 fraudulent classes would be revealed.  Furthermore, the discovery of Julius Peppers’ transcript, which showed likely fraud dating back to at least 1999, wasn’t revealed until August of 2012.  Neither of those timeline discrepancies were addressed in the school’s statement regarding any potential future NCAA involvement.  Moreover, it was unknown whether the NCAA official who had made several trips to Chapel Hill in the fall of 2011 was Thurnes, a co-worker of Thurnes, or someone else with a past association with UNC’s new compliance officer for NCAA matters, Vince Ille.  The school-released statement concluded by saying, “University officials will continue to keep the NCAA informed as developments warrant.” 
* * *
The essential (and unanswered) questions:
-- When already faced with heavy public scrutiny and criticism over their lax handling of the academic fraud case, why would UNC choose a person to lead an investigation who had such close past connections with individuals and aspects of the school?
-- Why had Chancellor Holden Thorp and the school refused to reveal what the reviewed athlete transcripts in early 2012 had revealed?
-- Why had the university refused to provide class and grade information for athletes, even in safely-censored formats?
-- What possible knowledge of (and/or connection to) the AFAM academic scandal was Robert Mercer associated with?
-- Since Harold Woodard has once been a lecturer in Julius Nyang’oro’s department, how close was Woodard’s connection to the disgraced former AFAM chairman?
-- Did UNC in part hire Vince Ille due to his close associations with current NCAA personnel?
-- Why was the NCAA still choosing to ignore the academic scandal at UNC – one which had clearly benefitted athletes and their eligibility?