University of North Carolina President Tom Ross, left, and Chancellor Carol Folt listen during a special joint meeting of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. The board gathered to discuss the results of an independent investigation of past academic irregularities. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Carol L. Folt became chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in July 2013, well after the emergence of an academic scandal involving student-athletes had tarnished the prestigious public flagship known nationwide for its Tar Heels.

The cleanup began before she took office. It continues to this day.

The release of investigator Kenneth L. Wainstein’s report last week on “irregular” classes within what was once called the Department of African and Afro-American Studies was the latest milestone in a scandal that stretches back more than three years.

Wainstein, a former U.S. Justice Department official now with the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, documented in detail how an estimated 3,100 students received credits through “paper classes” for the better part of two decades. The classes delivered essentially no instruction and demanded minimal work.

Folt, previously interim president of Dartmouth College, was hired to get to the bottom of the mess and to help UNC-Chapel Hill move forward.

Folt said after the release of the report that the university had begun disciplinary action against nine employees, which could lead to punishments up to termination. She declined to identify the targets of this action. “You can say it crosses the institution,” Folt told The Washington Post in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The first female leader of UNC-Chapel Hill, Folt, 63, holds a bachelor’s degree in aquatic biology and a master’s degree in biology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She earned a doctorate in ecology from the University of California at Davis and was a faculty member and administrator for 30 years at Dartmouth before moving to Chapel Hill.

Folt’s challenge now is twofold: She must continue, and if necessary, accelerate, internal reforms that predate her tenure; and she must defend the academic integrity of a distinguished public university that traces its history to the earliest years of the nation in the 18th century.

“People at Chapel Hill have actually known about this since 2011,” Folt said of the scandal. “It’s been almost four years. That time has been very productively used.”

Folt said gaps in oversight that allowed the paper classes to endure and proliferate for 18 years without knowledge of high-level administrators have been closed. She said the department at issue previously had not received as much scrutiny as others because it did not offer graduate degrees. That was also true, she said, of oversight of the department leadership. Now, she said, the process of academic review is applied consistently across the campus.

“Every single one of those loopholes has been completely caught and changed,” Folt said.

Also, she said, the university has strengthened its monitoring of independent study programs. And it has initiated random checks to ensure classes are actually being held as advertised.

But Folt said she also wants to defend an academic unit that in July 2013 was renamed the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies. The two people Wainstein identified as central figures in the scandal — Deborah Crowder, a department administrator who was not on the faculty; and Julius Nyang’oro, a former department chairman — are gone.

The department, Folt said, has 25 faculty members. “There is no aspersion cast on the integrity of those faculty members,” she said. “A number of them are very strong scholars.”

Folt said she also wants to reach out to former department students to ask them for suggestions. “I’m as concerned about the innocent victims in this as I am about anything,” she said. The scandal, she said, has produced “terrible collateral damage.” That is true, she said, for the university as a whole.

“We’re not making excuses for the wrongdoing,” Folt said. But she added that UNC-Chapel Hill is “a large and wonderful university” and that its graduates should remain proud of their accomplishments. “Their degrees are outstanding,” Folt said. “I’d stand by them forever.”

It is remarkable that the leader of a 29,000-student university of this stature — whose peers head the flagship schools in states such as Michigan and Virginia — even has to reiterate the value of a UNC-Chapel Hill degree. U.S. News and World Report ranks UNC-Chapel Hill fifth among the nation’s public universities and 32nd in the world.

It is also inescapable that in a southern state — where African Americans were enslaved for generations before the Civil War and oppressed for generations afterward — there is extra significance when a scandal is centered on an academic unit dedicated to African and African-American studies.

Folt, asked about this, said the department belongs to a diverse community of scholars nationwide that arose in the civil rights movement. That community encompasses disciplines specializing in various minority cultures, she said, from the African diaspora to Latino and Asian studies.

“We have a rich tradition of cultural studies,” Folt said. She said it is essential for a diverse nation to understand its history. “All of those are very important,” she said. “That’s why I want this to be a proud, strong department.”

Asked how top administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill could fail to spot trouble for so many years, even as word of the easy-grade classes circulated widely in various corners of the campus, Folt said that the university would be vigilant from now on.

“Completely accountable,” she said. “It won’t be acceptable to say, ‘I didn’t know. I didn’t hear of it.’”

Folt added: “I want every course to be outstanding. I really do believe that and hold my colleagues to that same level of aspiration. None of them wants to think that their own work is being doubted because some people are looking for an easy way out. ... Chapel Hill is a great university with outstanding classes. We’re going to be as aware of this as anyone. Because we’ve really learned a lesson in a very hard way.”