The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wainstein probe implicates over 3,000 students in University of North Carolina academic scandal

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version.

An eight-month probe has estimated that the “shadow curriculum” that existed at the University of North Carolina from 1993 to 2011 offered a grade-point boost from phony coursework to more than 3,100 students, including a disproportionately high percentage of student-athletes.

The report, released Wednesday after an investigation led by attorney and former Department of Justice official Kenneth Wainstein, also provided the deepest reading to date on the link between student-athlete counselors and the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. In particular, it details a slide presentation to the North Carolina football staff in November 2009 that warned coaches that the “shadow curriculum” would desist because of the retirement of its designer.

One slide from the presentation noted that counselors from the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) read: “We put (athletes) in classes that met degree requirements in which:

— They didn’t go to class

— They didn’t take notes or have to stay awake

— They didn’t have to meet with professors

— They didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material.”

The slide then warned in capital letters: “THESE NO LONGER EXIST,” indicating that an effective mechanism for keeping athletes academically eligible had subsided. The North Carolina head football coach at the time, Butch Davis, denied in Wainstein’s report that he could remember the slide.

“The thing that was the most striking was the slide presentation,” Wainstein told The Washington Post Wednesday evening.

The alarm among some student-athlete counselors came at the retirement of Deborah Crowder, a secretary in the African and Afro-American Studies department. Crowder had begun the “shadow curriculum” about a year after Julius Nyang’oro became head of the department and practiced indifferent oversight, according to the report.

“She designed and offered what are called ‘paper classes,’” the Wainstein report reads. She would give the courses numbers, grade the final papers after a cursory check of proper length and sign Nyang’oro’s name to the grades.

“That this would have gone so far that an administrator (and not a faculty member) would be assigning a grade, it was such a shock,” Carol Folt, the university’s new chancellor, said in a conference call on Wednesday morning.

A number of the students’ papers included brief introductions and closings with only “fluff” in between, according to the report.

“Hundreds” of the courses, the report reads, were independent-study. Yet when the university tightened standards on the amount of independent study a student could undertake, Crowder altered her program, creating courses she identified as lecture courses, but which mirrored independent study in that lectures never happened. The Wainstein report found 188 such courses between 1999 and 2011, in which 47.4 percent of the enrollments in these “paper classes” were student-athletes, who generally comprise 4 percent of the student population. Once Crowder retired in 2009, Nyang’oro sustained the practices for two more years until his retirement in 2011, albeit less voluminously.

In all the “paper classes,” the report found an average issued grade of 3.62, set against 3.28 for the regular classes in the department. Among student-athletes, though, the report found an average issued grade of 3.55, further above the 2.84 among student-athletes in the regular department classes.

“In football, for example, ASPSA Associate Director Cynthia Reynolds and her staff sent Crowder lists of players to be enrolled in ‘paper classes’ each term, and in some cases apparently even indicated for Crowder the grade or grade range the player would need to earn in the class to maintain eligibility,” the report stated.

In the more nationally visible men’s basketball program, meanwhile, “Academic counselor Burgess McSwain and her successor Wayne Walden routinely called Crowder to arrange classes for their players.” The Raleigh News & Observer reported in June that five members of North Carolina’s 2005 national-championship team, including “at least four key players, accounted for a combined 39 enrollments in classes that have been identified as confirmed or suspected lecture classes that never met.”

Still, the Wainstein report, the third commissioned by the university in the three years since the scandal surfaced, does not establish knowledge of the extent of the “shadow curriculum” within the basketball program or athletic department. Former star Rashad McCants told ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” in June about a trail of “paper courses” that had not educated him. He alleged that head coach Roy Williams had offered to help him “swap” one course for another. Former Tar Heel basketball players and Williams had rebutted the claims.

Wainstein’s report, which interviewed both Williams and former basketball head coach Matt Doherty, does not place heavy implication on Williams. In fact, it paints Williams as concerned toward his academic assistants that, after his arrival in 2003, too many of his players seemed to major in African and Afro-American Studies, a signal that counselors might be steering them.

“The basketball numbers [in the AFAM department] go down starting around 2007,” Wainstein said, “and continue down until they’re pretty much negligible by 2009.”

According to Wainstein, Walden couldn’t remember ever telling Williams or his assistants that Crowder was grading students.

The report criticizes the general failure of both university and athletic officials to probe more deeply even after a general reputation of laxness and specific suspicions. (One administrator noted around 2006 that Nyang’oro couldn’t possibly oversee 300 independent-study courses at one time.) The report also commends the university for its vigilance once the details surfaced in 2011.

“We don’t have the administration at the higher levels turning a blind eye to these things,” Wainstein said. “It’s something where the university definitely realized they screwed up.”

In March 2012, the NCAA found North Carolina guilty of multiple infractions but found it had not lost “institutional control,” a major factor in avoiding penalties. The university fired Davis on July 27, 2011, and athletic director Dick Baddour resigned the day after that. North Carolina vacated 16 football wins from 2008 and 2009, and the NCAA tacked on reductions of 15 scholarships, three years of probation and a 2012 post-season bowl ban.

This latest report will go to the NCAA for further review, though the organization has been briefed throughout the Wainstein investigation.

“We’ll make sure to give them everything,” Wainstein said. “This is sort of a big thing because the facts are now out.”

With 126 interviews conducted and 1.6 million emails and documents reviewed, Wainstein’s report furthers that of the former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, released two years ago. This is the first to include interviews with Crowder and Nyang’oro.

Neither is quoted extensively in the report, but the report queries extensively as to their motives. Atop even a Tar Heel fandom that sometimes caused Crowder to miss work on days after harsh basketball losses, both Crowder and Nyang’oro seem to have operated out of a sense of “compassion,” according to the report. Crowder’s compassion stemmed from her time as an undergraduate at North Carolina in the early 1970s, when she thought the university catered excessively to only the “best and brightest,” while Nyang’oro’s compassion kept in mind two former student-athletes from early in his tenure who had left the school because of academic ineligibility, after which one became an inmate and the other a murder victim.

Further, an ASPSA tutor told Wainstein’s report she shared such sympathies, crossing accepted lines to help out athletes she deemed incapable of completing necessary schoolwork.