Friday, November 4, 2016

Tarnished Heels -- Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen
Public documents; Sunshine Day

            The Raleigh News and Observer had never come right out and blatantly said it, but there were certain suspicions that had long been asked via several social media sites: Had UNC intentionally delayed and/or stonewalled the release of certain public documents that could have provided insight into the various scandals, and which also could have caused further damage to the school’s reputation?  Based on the university’s extremely negligent response to numerous document requests that seemed to clearly fall under the Freedom of Information Act, the idea of an orchestrated delay certainly appeared to have merit.  That topic of freedom-of-information laws would arise in early March of 2013 due to the long delays some in the media had been subjected to by UNC.
            A “Sunshine Day” event was scheduled for Monday, March 11 in Raleigh.  A panel of individuals would be there to discuss public records.  An article ran in the News and Observer two days prior to the event, highlighting the frustrations that some in the media had felt over the previous year.  Written by reporter Dan Kane, the article stated that in the 18 months since UNC had first acknowledged academic fraud had permeated its campus, there had been several public reports and open meetings about the issues.  However, Kane noted that much remained unknown, in large part because the university had either not responded to numerous requests for information, or had outright rejected them.
            Kane pointed out that the work of Baker Tilly and Jim Martin did not closely examine paper records of enrollment in more than 40 fraudulent classes identified before the fall of 2011, nor did they identify how many of the 560 overall suspected grade changes involved players on the school’s football and men’s basketball teams – data that could have retroactively affected the eligibility of some athletes.  The newspaper filed a records request with UNC to obtain that information, and got a less than cooperative response: If Baker Tilly and Martin didn’t do the analysis, then it wasn’t going to be made available.  The News and Observer stayed above the belt and didn’t ask an obvious question, but many in social media did: UNC paid Baker Tilly nearly one million dollars, yet the firm couldn’t find the time to sit down and closely examine some paper records?  According to State Senator Thom Goolsby, the lack of information about the scandal was one reason that the university’s academic reputation continued to suffer.  “If the answers had been forthcoming in this, the story would have been over,” he stated.
            In all, university officials said they had received over 900 information requests in the three years since the first stages of the scandal become public, with roughly half coming from media entities.  Chancellor Holden Thorp attempted to address some of the “delay” concerns in a written statement.  “On the whole, we have made what I consider to be extraordinary efforts to provide the public with information about these issues,” Thorp said.  “We continually strive to improve our internal processes and the University’s capacity to respond to and communicate with those who are requesting public records, including members of the news media.  The principle of openness is important, and one about which we can all agree.”
            That “principle of openness” would seem to be a grey area, however, as evidenced by the amount of time it had taken to fill certain requests.  For example, the News and Observer had submitted information requests on various topics pertaining to the school’s scandal on the following dates: June 11, 2012; October 22, 2012; October 25, 2012; and February 14, 2013.  All of those had remained unfilled until just days prior to the March 9, 2013, article – and it was likely not a coincidence that they were filled just days prior to the Sunshine event where the importance of public records would be discussed.  Another request that was noted in Kane’s article – one asking for correspondence, supporting documentation and drafts related to an internal probe of academic fraud, which was submitted on June 20, 2012, remained unfilled.   Almost nine months had passed since its initial request.
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            The March 9, 2013, article said that the newspaper had filed dozens of public records requests related to the scandal.  In some cases, the university had responded by providing revealing information.  For example, certain documents had shown the number of enrollments of football and men’s basketball players in certain no-show courses spanning as far back as 10 years.  Specific information was also revealed about the AFAM independent studies program.  However, despite the media having requested, received, and reported that information prior to the release of the Martin report, the Baker Tilly consultants and Martin excluded virtually all of it from their submitted report – for reasons unknown.  Or, at least, for reasons that could only be murmured by the media, but not proclaimed as outright accusations.
            In the many instances where the university had not filled the requests, however, often the school had not responded at all.  Some of those requested documents included records turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation, as well as documents that may have been generated when former AFAM chairman Julius Nyang’oro first spoke with university officials before he resigned from his position.  The article said that the lack of response on some requests troubled Wade Hargrove, chairman of UNC’s Board of Trustees.  A lawyer who specialized in the media business and public records, Hargrove said he had told university officials to be forthcoming and timely in responding to public records requests.  “On its face, it’s hard to understand why it takes this long to respond to some requests,” he said.  Yet the trend continued.  And if the chairman of a university’s Board of Trustees had no real influence to put an end to potential stonewalling, then that was very telling with regards to the pecking order of leadership at the school.
            Many critics continued to indicate that the lack of information from UNC suggested that the university was trying to keep the scandal from prompting a second NCAA investigation.  A follow-up visit by the NCAA, Kane wrote, would likely focus on men’s basketball – the school’s holy grail and the commodity it was most closely associated with in the public eye.  Gerald Gurney, a professor and former head of Academic Services for Athletes at the University of Oklahoma, said as much: “It is clear to me that the university does not wish to seek the truth because they are afraid of what the answer might be, and how it might affect their premier athletic program, which is men’s basketball.”
            The News and Observer reported that it had requested all correspondence between the NCAA and the university as it related to the academic fraud scandal.  As of the article’s press time, that request had only been partially fulfilled.  Senator Thom Goolsby said the UNC scandal was a big reason he was pushing legislation that would have created a misdemeanor crime for public officials who refused to provide public records.  Goolsby said he hoped the SBI investigation would answer how the scandal happened, who knew about it and why it took so long to become public.  He conceded, however, that it may not happen, since the SBI investigation pertained to criminal matters and not the extent (and initial intent) of the academic fraud.  “I know that there’s a lot of people in the legislature who are looking out for this, listening for this,” he said.  “We want answers, and I hope we’re going to get them.”  But like UNC’s Board of Trustees chairman Wade Hargrove, apparently state senators didn’t have much influence over the university’s actions, either.
* * *
            Two days later the “Sunshine Day” event panel discussion was held, and the News and Observer provided a recap article of several of the key points.  The March 11, 2013, article’s lead-in tied the topic to the piece that had been released two days earlier, which had detailed how UNC had long delayed the release of certain public documents.  Part of the Sunshine event dealt with discussing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, which the university had long tried to use as an all-inclusive shield to keep from having to release information.  Many of those documents eventually became public anyway based on a judge’s ruling, saying that FERPA had its limits.  “A lot of times, FERPA is used as an excuse not to release anything,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, the journalism dean at the University of Maryland.  “But there is a lot of information that is release-able.  It can get tricky, but I don’t think FERPA protection extends as broadly as a lot of schools interpret it.” 
            Dalglish was among several speakers at the N.C. Sunshine Day event.  Others included Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association; Dick Baddour, the former UNC athletics director; Kevin Schwartz, the general manager for the Daily Tar Heel newspaper; and Jon Sasser, attorney for former UNC football coach Butch Davis.  News and Observer reporter Dan Kane also had the opportunity to touch on several topics during the event.
            During a panel discussion on the UNC case, Schwartz said he believed the school had used the Federal Education Privacy Act as a tactic to stall media interest in the story, a sentiment long shared by most everyone not associated with the school.  Dick Baddour objected, however: “I don’t think there’s any evidence that the university was hiding behind FERPA.”  Baddour pointed out, though, that he was not speaking for the school; a representative for UNC was invited to join the panel but had declined.
            Despite having possibly been forced into an early retirement from the school, Baddour was still doggedly supportive of his former employer.  He criticized the News and Observer for publishing the transcript of UNC football player Julius Peppers.  Following a moment of stunned, flabbergasted silence by nearly all in attendance, reporter Dan Kane stated the obvious: the transcript had essentially already been “published” by the school itself, as UNC had allowed it to be publicly housed and viewed on its website for years.  Kane also reiterated that he had asked the university several times about a “test transcript,” giving officials a chance to remove it from public view before it was identified and eventually connected to Peppers by fans of N.C. State University.
            The Sunshine Day event brought more attention to the UNC scandal, and also the institution’s practices of withholding information that would likely further damage the school’s athletics programs.  It showed that Baddour stood by the school’s past actions, but also that Kane and others in the media would continue to pursue the truth.  Despite being a graduate from UNC’s School of Law, Amanda Martin, the lawyer representing the N.C. Press Association, said in reference to the past (and continued) legal pursuit of those public records: "I didn’t relish suing my Alma Mater, but sometimes people just need suing.”  Since a formal representation from UNC had declined the invite, an official response from the university on the event’s various topics was left to guesswork.
* * *
            More than a month later two articles came out on April 18, 2013.  The first appeared in the News and Observer and focused on Chancellor Holden Thorp, who would soon be stepping down at UNC and taking a job at Washington University in St. Louis.  The article in part talked about the overwhelmingly negative effect dealing with athletics could have on a university leader.  Thorp went as far as to suggest that dealing with intercollegiate athletics was the most important part of the chancellor’s job.  “That’s not right that it’s that way,” Thorp said.  “We should try to figure out a way to change that.  But for the time being, if you’re running a school that has big-time sports, if there’s a problem, it can overwhelm you.”
            Thorp said he had been so distracted by athletics that it was difficult to accomplish other priorities.  The article said that when he became chancellor five years earlier, he never would have dreamed of the problems he would face in athletics.  One of the biggest ongoing issues was the massive academic fraud scandal that was heavily centered around athletics.  Thorp acknowledged that he was caught up in the egotistical thought that an athletic scandal could never happen in Chapel Hill.  “In order to be vigilant you can’t be telling yourself, ‘Oh we’re one of the places that never gets in trouble,’” he said.  “That’s part of what hurt us.”
* * *
            The second News and Observer article released on April 18, 2013, focused on university employee Mary Willingham.  She had come forward the previous November to reveal a pattern of athletic/academic cheating that she had observed over multiple years.  Despite the fact that much of her information had been inexplicably ignored by former Governor Jim Martin and the Baker Tilly review team, Willingham still won the Robert Maynard Hutchins Award from The Drake Group – validating her as a reputable source.  It was given annually to a university faculty or staff member who defended the institution’s academic integrity in the face of college athletics.
            In her comments after receiving the award, Willingham spoke more about how athletes stayed eligible at UNC, and how many of them were ill-prepared for college level work.  “Many athletes told me what they would like to study,” she said.  “And listen to what we did.  Instead, we directed them to an array of mismatched classes that have a very, very long history of probable (athletic) eligibility.  And sadly, it’s still happening.”
            Willingham went on to talk about her struggle to combat the system at UNC.  She said that NCAA paperwork would arrive annually that required a signature and promise that she hadn’t seen cheating, or been a part of it.  “I’ve got to tell you that most of the time, I scribbled my initials on it,” she said.  “So yeah, I lied.  I saw it – I saw cheating.  I saw it, I knew about it, I was an accomplice to it, I witnessed it.  And I was afraid, and silent, for so long.”
            Perhaps it was that fear and silence that had long kept almost every other member of UNC’s faculty from speaking up about the academic scandal, and the role that athletics had played in it.  Allen Sack, a member of the faculty at the University of New Haven and the president of The Drake Group, said that faculty members should stand up and say, “No, we’re not going to tolerate this anymore.”  That had clearly not happened at UNC, though.
            The article stated that during her 20-minute speech, Willingham strongly criticized the NCAA – calling the organization a “cartel.”  At the time of the article it had been nearly a year since reports of widespread athletic/academic fraud within the school’s AFAM department had arisen, yet the NCAA still hadn’t returned to reopen a formal investigation.  Willingham also expressed frustration at the amount of money the school had paid on consultants and reports related to the various scandals; consultants and reports that had also largely tried to turn the focus away from athletics.
* * *
            On April 19, 2013, the Raleigh News and Observer’s investigative reporting was honored with recognition in two national journalism contests.  In a staff report posted by the newspaper, it stated that the N&O’s reporting on academic and athletic scandals at UNC had won first place in the education writing category of the National Headliner Awards, which had been announced by the Press Club of Atlantic City.  The award honored three staffers – Dan Kane, J. Andrew Curliss, and Andrew Carter.  The UNC reporting also finished third in the investigative reporting category in the annual Associated Press Sports Editors contest.
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The essential (and unanswered) questions:
-- Had UNC intentionally delayed and/or stonewalled the release of documents in an attempt to limit the damages caused by the ongoing scandals?
-- Despite charging UNC nearly one million dollars for its services, why had Baker Tilly not been able to find the time to closely examine paper records that existed prior to 2001?

-- Why had UNC continued to delay and withhold public documents, even after the chairman of its own Board of Trustees told university officials to be forthcoming and timely in responding to records requests?