Friday, November 4, 2016

Tarnished Heels -- Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen
Further depth of the academic scandal; Robert Mercer;
Board of Governors; SACS

            Shortly following the late-January retraction by Baker Tilly, an editorial would appear in the News and Observer written by John Drescher.  That piece would be important for a variety of reasons.  It mixed data and facts with numerous hard-hitting statements about the questionable thoroughness of the Martin investigation.  Of equal importance was the identity of the writer himself.  Not only was Drescher the executive editor of the N&O, but he was also a graduate of UNC.  As a result, he had proven himself to be one of the few individuals with any sort of past association with the school who was not afraid to decry the athletic/academic scandals as a series of deplorable acts which had resulted in little to no consequences.
            Drescher’s editorial recounted the events that led Baker Tilly to drop one of its key findings: that athletics officials and academic support officials had raised questions and concerns with the Faculty Committee on Athletics about certain courses.  That had been one of the main presumed “facts” within the Martin report that had tried to free athletics from taking primary blame in the scandal.  However, it was later shown to have never been the case. 
            Prior to the retraction, former Governor Martin had written: “I believe that findings and conclusions should be based on evidence, not hearsay and imagination.”  Drescher’s editorial responded with, “If only that were what Martin’s report did.”  Drescher talked about his past experience as a reporter on the Capitol beat, which coincided with the time when Martin was governor from 1985 to 1993.  Drescher had interviewed Martin several times, and indicated that Martin was smart and capable.  “But he’s an inexperienced investigator,” Drescher wrote, “and it showed in his report.  After athletic department officials told him they had raised red flags with the faculty committee, neither Martin nor Baker Tilly interviewed any of the faculty committee members, except for the NCAA representative.  That’s right: Gov. Martin never talked to the people he blamed for dropping the ball.”
            Drescher’s editorial went on to state that Martin and Baker Tilly were obligated to interview several members of the faculty committee for two primary reasons.  One was to make every effort to get to the truth.  The second was to give members of the committee a chance to respond to charges that they had heard concerns about possible academic abuse.  “There’s no acceptable explanation for why Martin and Baker Tilly didn’t interview these faculty members,” Drescher continued.  “Martin and Baker Tilly seemed more determined to absolve the athletic department of blame than to get to the bottom of what went wrong.”
            Despite members of the UNC System’s Board of Governors not thinking that the retraction damaged the rest of Martin’s findings, UNC Professor Jay Smith felt otherwise.  “The importance of this event cannot be overstated,” Smith wrote in The Herald-Sun of Durham.  “The validity of Martin’s interpretation of UNC’s troubles as ‘not an athletics scandal’ hinged on the anecdote about the FAC; the discrediting of that anecdote undermines the interpretive thrust of the entire report.”
            With Baker Tilley’s retraction, Drescher wrote, Martin had painted himself into a corner.  As noted in the previous chapter (and reiterated in the editorial), the only officials Baker Tilly had found who knew about the fraudulent classes, other than the department head and his assistant, were from the athletics department and the faculty representative to the NCAA.  “In trying to get to the bottom of the scandal,” Drescher said, “it’s helpful to ask the basic questions… What did he know?  When did he know it?  I’d pose a third question: When he knew, what did he do about it?  Martin and Baker Tilly tried to show that the UNC athletic department was pure.  Instead, cornered by the facts, they’ve unintentionally shown that athletic department officials suspected academic fraud years ago and did little or nothing about it.”
* * *
            Months later the true cost of the Martin investigation would be revealed.  According to a copy of UNC’s agreement with Baker Tilly, the firm was to provide five employees at a combined cost of $1,520 per hour for the work.  Martin himself had reportedly volunteered his services to the university, only being reimbursed for approximately $5,000 in expenses.  Baker Tilly, however, had charged UNC a total of $941,000.  Karen Moon, a university spokeswoman, would later tell the News and Observer that all of the money paid to the firm had come from a university foundation that took in private donations, so no taxpayer dollars had been spent.  And despite the fact that Baker Tilly had been forced to retract one of the most vital claims in the entire report that had aimed to absolve athletics of any wrongdoing, Moon said: “Their analysis was independent, objective and thorough.”
* * *
            Just as Baker Tilly was retracting its earlier backing of that key component of the Martin report, updated data on the scandal was released regarding the information that was uncovered.  In a January 25, 2013, article in the News and Observer, it was revealed that athletes who took a subset of 172 fraudulent classes within the AFAM department had an average grade of 3.56, which was between a B-plus and A-minus.  Those classes had also accounted for 512 total grade changes during the time period that had been examined.  The period covered in the new data did not extend prior to the fall of 2001, because the report indicated that information did not exist in electronic format beforehand.  In all, 216 suspect courses were identified back to 1997, with 560 grade changes that lacked proper authorization. 
            The extremely high average grade for athletes in the fraudulent courses should have raised a major red flag.  The transcript of Julius Peppers showed that his grades in AFAM courses were considerably higher than in his other subject areas, and essentially had kept him eligible to participate in sports.  An average grade of 3.56 amongst athletes for over a decade likely had similar effects for some – if not all – other cases involving football and basketball players.  Yet once again, that line of investigation was inexplicably not pursued by Martin or Baker Tilly.
* * *
            On February 7, 2013, the UNC System Board of Governors’ special panel released its own report.  It largely accepted the findings of Martin and Baker Tilly, even after the vital retraction and the updated data that had been released.  The report was met with criticism by some BOG members, and other details emerged from the findings that added more questions to an already ambiguous scandal.
            Articles were released from various local sources on February 7, including,, and several by the News and Observer.  Multiples quotes and valuable pieces of information came forward as a result.  The special panel had been selected by the Board of Governors itself, which as previously noted had a heavy percentage of UNC graduates as members.  In fact, one portion of the report seemed to echo the sentiment that many of UNC’s leaders had been loudly stating over the previous six-plus months: that they would try and make sure nothing of the sort ever happened in the future.  “This panel acknowledges the open question about what might have occurred years ago,” the report said, “but believes that it is immaterial to its focus on current practices in both Academic Affairs and the (academic support program) that reduce the risk for any such anomalies occurring in the future.”  Essentially, they conceded that they didn’t know why the past indiscretions happened, and they weren’t overly concerned with those reasons, either.
            Some of the same types of contradictory remarks that had dotted the Martin report also showed up in the BOG panel’s report.  In the article, it stated that the panel told the rest of the board that it may never know if athletes were steered to bogus classes, but added that there was no evidence to support a conspiracy between the athletics department and the AFAM department.  Louis Bissette, the board member who led the panel, said: “We are not an investigative body.  We are a review panel.”  That would lead to the same unanswered questions that plagued the Martin report.  Why not look at past email and phone records to determine if there had been collusion between athletics and academics?  And if the BOG (and apparently Martin and his team) were not investigative bodies, then why not hire a real investigative team with experience in that realm? 
            There were other factual and data-driven inconsistencies.  Bissette was told that there were no records that could show how many freshman non-athletes were able to enroll in and complete African Studies courses designed for upper-level students.  As detailed in earlier chapters, past transcripts of UNC students would have clearly shown that distinction.  So in that regard there definitely were records that could have provided that data – though it would have been a time-consuming process to accumulate the information.  Apparently that was not the meticulous type of approach the panel wished to take, even though it would have provided accurate results.
            Board of Governors member Jim Deal called the scandal embarrassing and inexcusable.  “The chairman had a fiefdom and he was the king and nobody ever looked at what the king was doing,” said Deal.  However, he stopped short of questioning the findings of the panel’s review.  Other board members were not as forgiving, though.  Member Fred Eshelman of Wilmington expressed his incredulous doubts by saying: “This stuff was propagated for 14 years basically by two people without additional collusion?”
Burley Mitchell, a former State Supreme Court Chief Justice, was even more outspoken.  According to the article, he blasted the consultants who provided much of the legwork for Martin’s report, saying they relied on incomplete statistical evidence and failed to interview key people involved in the scandal.  “It was inconceivable that it was two people who did this.  You have 172 fake classes.  Forty-five percent of the students in there are athletes.  That is way disproportionate for their number on campus, which was less than five percent who are athletes.  Somehow they are being directed to those courses,” Mitchell said.  “There is, to my mind, a good deal of evidence throughout this campus there were a large number of people, particularly in athletics, who knew that these courses did not amount to anything.”
            Mitchell continued by alluding to the allegations that academic counselors had steered athletes to certain courses.  “It was clearly also an athletic problem to an extreme,” he said.  In support of Mitchell’s point, an article appeared in the New York Times during the same timeframe.  In it, former UNC player Michael McAdoo alleged that he and other athletes got special treatment while at UNC.  According to the article (and a recap later published by, McAdoo claimed that despite wanting a different major, counselors at UNC selected AFAM for him because it worked around the Tar Heels’ practice schedule.  He said that he was “assigned” a Swahili course, never attended it, and never met the professor.  That was also the class where (with the help of tutor Jennifer Wiley) he plagiarized a paper and lost his NCAA eligibility.
            A spokesperson at UNC said in reply to McAdoo’s claims, “Number one, I cannot comment on any student’s academic record.  Number two, I cannot comment on Michael’s situation because of ongoing litigation.  As far as the counselors, I would refer you to the Martin report for what counselors did or didn’t do.”  McAdoo’s disdain for the university and how they treated him was clear, though.  He was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I would still like to get a college degree someday.  But not at the University of North Carolina.  They just wasted my time.”
            McAdoo’s assertions were yet another piece of anecdotal evidence of counselors steering athletes to fraudulent courses, and they supported the stance of Burley Mitchell and others that the reviews by Martin and the BOG special panel had not delved deep enough into the issues in question.  When asked whether the NCAA should be investigating above and beyond what the Martin report and the BOG panel had reported, Mitchell said, “Hell, yes.”  Steve Kirschner, a UNC spokesman, said after the panel’s report: “We do not comment on the specific details of our daily operations.”
* * *
            More damaging information was revealed on February 7, 2013, which dealt with what at first appeared to be a side note of the Board of Governors’ report, but eventually raised more serious questions.  The limelight was once again directed back towards some of the fraudulent courses, and the past lack of action that leaders within the school had taken in terms of identifying and potentially stopping the offering of those courses.  The News and Observer reported that according to university documents, the former director for Academic Support for Athletics had been instructed in previous years to track independent study courses to make sure there were no improprieties.  But Robert Mercer, that former director, had apparently not followed through with that task.
            The initial request of Mercer had been made by the faculty committee following an independent study scandal at Auburn University in 2006-07.  The committee had wanted to be sure that something similar was not happening at UNC.  However, officials from both the school and the overall UNC System said that they could find no evidence that Mercer had followed up.  “He was asked to provide reports, but he did not provide written reports, is all I can tell you,” said BOG member Louis Bissette.  “It’s another failure.”
            As thoroughly discussed in the previous chapter, Mercer was one of four officials with athletics ties who claimed that he raised concerns to the Faculty Athletics Committee in 2002 and 2006 about independent studies classes.  That claim was at the center of the Martin report’s findings and overall validity.  The News and Observer’s Dan Kane pointedly asked in a February 7, 2012, article:  If Mercer was concerned about those classes, why hadn’t he been tracking them as he had been asked?  Chancellor Holden Thorp said, “That should have been followed up on.  I wish it had been, because we would have caught all of this stuff.”  As was often the case with UNC employees during the ongoing scandal, Mercer could not be reached for comment.
            Thorp said he didn’t know whether Mercer’s apparent lack of action on the issue of the  independent studies casted doubt on Mercer’s assertion that he raised concerns about them, the N&O article stated.  Burley Mitchell, the Board of Governors’ member who had been so outspoken about the lack of a true investigation into the university’s issues, said the revelation made Mercer’s assertion look like a “smokescreen.”
* * *
            The university attracted negative attention from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) several days later.  According to a February 12, 2013, article in the News and Observer, SACS was an agency that monitored the academic quality of schools and colleges across the South.  Its board could issue colleges a warning, or worse, probation.  If a school on probation did not clearly address problems, it could lose accreditation.
            In a notice from the accrediting agency, UNC had been told that it must ensure the legitimacy of degrees awarded to an unknown number of graduates who took bogus classes going back to the 1990’s.  One possible solution proposed by SACS president Belle Wheelan would have been for the school to offer those graduates with free courses to take the place of the fraudulent ones.  When asked why any former student would return for an extra course, Wheelan said: “Integrity.  Honesty.  Fairness.  You know, all those things we like to think they learned as part of that academic program in the first place.”  A team assembled by the accrediting agency was scheduled to visit UNC in April.
            As an embarrassing byproduct of the warning from SACS, approximately two weeks later UNC officials confirmed that administrators were performing visual inspections of classes across campus to make sure they were taking place.  The spot checks were part of the university’s efforts to assure SACS that there would be no need for a sanction against the school in the wake of its various academic fraud scandals.
* * *
            As March got underway, there were finally some minor rumblings from UNC’s faculty with regards to the stigma the academic scandals had placed on the university.  According to a March 8, 2013, article in the News and Observer, Professor Jay Smith was again at the vocal forefront.  As a leader of a professors’ coalition known as the Athletics Reform Group, Smith had spoken at a Faculty Council meeting and called for a multi-year, wide-ranging series of town hall meetings to “debate openly and honestly” the university’s commitment to NCAA Division I athletics.  In calling for a faculty-led debate, the news article reported, Smith read an email from an unnamed colleague that ran down a series of events that began as a scandal in the football program and led to the discovery of major academic fraud. 
            At the same meeting, Chancellor Thorp had announced that an outside panel led by Association of American Universities President Hunter Rawlings would hold its first meeting on April 19.  Thorp had asked Rawlings to lead an effort to examine the balance of athletics and academics at the school.  That led to tense moments during the meeting, however, as the article stated that Thorp bristled when Jay Smith suggested the Rawlings panel was “not going to serve the function that most of us hoped.”
            Some professors at the meeting took issue with Smith’s overall proposal, suggesting that faculty had been concerned all along and the administration had launched reforms to deal with the problems uncovered.  However, the past record of printed comments seemed to speak for itself: other than Smith and Mary Willingham, virtually no other UNC faculty members had been willing to publicly decry the prominent role the school’s athletics programs had played in the ongoing scandals.  Greg Copenhaver, a biology professor, argued that Smith cast athletes in a bad light, even though the vast majority of which were “good actors.”  Almost as if scripted, Copenhaver then suggested that the faculty focus on moving forward, rather than looking back – one of the oft-repeated PR sentiments from those at UNC who seemed to want to avoid uncovering any dark athletic secrets of the past.
* * *
The essential (and unanswered) questions:
-- Through the use of nearly one million dollars from private donations, had UNC essentially paid Baker Tilly to try and absolve athletics from primary responsibility in its academic scandal?
-- Considering that athletes received an average grade of nearly an A-minus in 172 fraudulent courses, why hadn’t further research been conducted to determine the effects of those fictitious grades on those athletes’ eligibility?
-- Like Martin and his team, why had the Board of Governors also neglected to closely scrutinize the email and phone records of Julius Nyang’oro and Deborah Crowder?
-- Once the BOG conceded that they were not an “investigative body” and were unable to uncover the answers to key questions (just as Martin and his team had been unable to do), why wouldn’t they insist on the hiring of a true, skilled investigator to look into those matters?
-- What possible motive would Robert Mercer, at the time the director for Academic Support for Athletics, have for failing to track independent study courses as he had been asked to do?