The University of North Carolina’s new report about 18 years of academic fraud that kept athletes eligible to play sports is national headline news, and as you can expect, these revelations are rocking Chapel Hill. You may wonder why I am writing about this on a blog about “protecting child safety at all levels of society.” While this case may not explicitly be about child safety (though it does have connections), it is such an important case of a school being able to look at an internal problem, and such a good example of fraud and failure to stop fraud for many years, at many levels, that I feel compelled to write about it.
First, point of personal privilege: I have lived in Chapel Hill for 14 years, and even though none of my family have been students at UNC, we have been involved in many facets of University life, including my service on the UNC’s Title IX Task Force to improve the school’s response to sexual assault. For all its problems, I adore UNC. Sports are not really my thing beyond March Madness, but I appreciate UNC’s world-class academics and unique community. Just yesterday week, UNC Hospitals saved my daughter from a serious health emergency–a late-night emergency room visit for abdominal pain turned into early-morning surgery to remove a dangerous cyst. So when I say I love and appreciate UNC, I really mean it.
Maybe because of this hospital visit on the same day as the latest revelations, when I read about UNC’s new, comprehensive investigative report by Kenneth Wainstein, I thought about how this academic fraud is like a cancer: one bad cell loses its way, bypassing normal immune system function that would stop it, and then co-opts other parts of the body to cause widespread systematic failure.
The 18-year academic fraud of bogus no-show classes to boost athletes’ grades was hatched by a department administrator, Deborah Crowder of the Afro and Afro-American studies department, but the fraud made its way up the chain of command, as her department chair and others failed to stop her.
Dan Kane and Jane Stancill of The Raleigh News & Observer write:
The report…said the bogus classes were hatched by a manager in the Department of African and Afro-American studies, Deborah Crowder, who had a rough time as a student and who wanted to help others, particularly athletes. She was enabled by her boss, Julius Nyang’oro, a department chair seemingly more interested in consulting abroad than running his shop.
The major difference in this report versus a previous investigation by former Governor Jim Martin is that the connection with athletics has finally been firmly made. Academic counselors for athletes steered the athletes to these bogus classes, to fraudulently raise the athletes’ grade point averages so that they could keep playing.
One smoking gun revealed by this new report is a PowerPoint slide from a presentation made by staff of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) in November 2009 after Deborah Crowder retired [source]:
If the rogue manager was a cancer cell, and the co-opted department chair was a failed immune system, then the adoption of these classes by the athletic advisors was the blood supply promoting the metastasis of spreading fraud. The fraudlent, fake classes went on for 18 years, involving over 3100 students. Legitimate classes were drawn into the fraud, as some lecture classes were real and did meet, but had extra no-show/paper-only students enrolled, and, in some cases, Deborah Crowder simply changed grades herself for students who had never attended class, without the professor’s permission. The News & Observer has a good list detailing the numerous aspects of this fraud, including a missed opportunity back in 2005 or 2006 to end the fraud. At that time, a Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education raised concerns about the number of independent studies classes under Julius Nyang’oro getting out of hand (more than 300 per year) but she was satisfied when Nyong’oro merely cut back on that number, without looking more closely at what was going on. That represents more failure and willful neglect, up the ladder of management.
Of course, the powerful influence of sports and athletic boosters is a huge aspect of this story. Even if boosters never would have asked for fraud or condoned it, how was this system of student-athletes supposed to work? How can students truly be quasi-professional athletes at the same time, especially if they are admitted because of their athletic gifts, with little regard for scholastic preparedness? These students were let down by the entire university, NCAA, and sports fans, who were willing to let gridiron, court or field performance be the sole bottom line.
This is an ongoing story, but I will say I am proud for UNC pulling back the curtain themselves with this Wainstein report, which the University commissioned. With fraud, as with abuse, institutions need to be able to see problems, no matter how long they have been going on or how deeply they run through the institution. Like the campus sexual assault scandal, problems have gone on for far too long and were neglected or covered up. But again in a parallel with the campus sexual assault scandal, the school is now taking a hard look at what is going on, and must make change. I think it is important that we support institutions who are making these changes, and show that our schools and even our teams can get better and move forward, as we deal with the truth.
Schedule an interview: Dr. Amy Tiemann is a frequent guest expert discussing parenting, child safety, and abuse prevention. Dr. Tiemann’s combination of perspectives and roles as a scientist, educator, author and parent gives her a unique ability to make an impact on individuals, families, and cultural standards and to create positive social change. To schedule an interview, please contact her publicist Jill Dykes, firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-749-8488