We knew that UNC's Department of African and Afro-American Studies offered sham classes. After the release of today's independent investigation we now know it went on for nearly two decades, and involved thousands of students—nearly half of them athletes.
Let's get the moralizing out of the way up top before we dive in: just remember, as you read this and are tempted to point out (accurately) that every program has joke classes, that the entire basis for amateurism relies on the idea that these athletes are paid with an education.
The full report, compiled by former DOJ official Kenneth Wainstein, can be read below. It details the extent to which North Carolina administrators Debby Crowder and Julius Nyang'oro flooded the Department of African and Afro-American Studies with so-called "paper classes" beginning in 1992.
According to the report, "over 3,100 students received one or more semesters of deficient instruction and were awarded high grades that often had little relationship to the quality of their work."
These were classes that were taught on an independent study basis for students and student-athletes whom Crowder selected. Like traditional independent studies at Chapel Hill or any other campus, these classes entailed no class attendance and required only the submission of a single research paper. Unlike traditional independent studies, however, there was no faculty member involved in managing the course and overseeing the student's research and writing process. In fact, the students never had a single interaction with a faculty member; their only interaction was with Crowder, the Student Services Manager who was not a member of the University faculty.
Crowder provided the students with no actual instruction, but she managed the whole course from beginning to end. She registered the selected students for the classes; she assigned them their paper topics; she received their completed papers at the end of the semester; she graded the papers; and she recorded the students' final class grades on the grade rolls. When Crowder graded the papers, she did so generously – typically with As or high Bs – and largely without regard to the quality of the papers. The result was that thousands of Chapel Hill students received high grades, a large number of whom did not earn those high grades with high quality work.
The report cites Crowder's desire to " help challenged students with watered-down academic requirements," and says she specifically "felt a strong affinity for student-athletes in particular, and she gave them ready access to these watered-down classes to help them manage their competing athletic and academic time demands."
And athletes flocked to Crowder's independent-study courses, especially football and basketball players.
Student-athletes accounted for a disproportionately high percentage of enrollments in the AFAM paper classes. Of the identifiable enrollments in the lecture paper classes, 47.4% were student-athletes, even though student-athletes make up just over 4% of the Chapel Hill undergraduate student body. Of those student-athlete enrollments, 50.9% were football players, 12.2% were men's basketball players, 6.1% were women's basketball players, and 30.6% were Olympic and other sport athletes.
The investigation found that athletes were pushed to Crowder's courses by the academic advisors provided them by the athletic department.
This steering was most prevalent among the counselors for the revenue sports of football and men's basketball. While some of these counselors knew only that these were easy classes, others were fully aware that there was no faculty involvement and that Crowder was managing the whole course and grading the papers. Those counselors saw these paper classes as "GPA boosters" and steered players into them largely in order to help them maintain their GPAs and their eligibility under the NCAA and Chapel Hill eligibility rules. At least two of those counselors went so far as to suggest what grades Crowder should award to their players who were taking her paper classes.
Those "GPA boosters" were effective:
In the case of 329 students, the grade they received in a paper class provided the "GPA boost" that either kept or pushed their GPA above the 2.0 level for a semester. For 81 of those students, that GPA boost was the margin that gave them the 2.0 GPA that allowed them to graduate.
The investigation goes on to cite numerous advisors, administrators, and faculty members who were or should have been aware of the "shadow curriculum" within the AFAM department, and failed to report their suspicions about obviously shady goings-on.
Several administrators were aware of red flags about potential irregularities in AFAM but took little or no action to inquire about them. For example, one administrator became aware in 2005 or 2006 that Nyang'oro was routinely listed as the instructor-of-record for a number of independent studies – approximately 300 per year – that was clearly well beyond what any professor could physically handle. That administrator's response was just to ask Nyang'oro to reduce his independent studies numbers and then to let the matter drop.
Beyond those University personnel who were aware of red flags about the AFAM classes, there were a larger number among the Chapel Hill faculty, administration and Athletics and ASPSA staff who knew that these were easy-grading classes with little rigor and knew that there was a process – like similar processes that exist in many colleges around the country – where some number of student-athletes were deliberately steered toward these classes. Several of those same people also made a conscious decision not to ask questions even though they had suspicions about the educational content of those classes.
[T]he University failed to conduct any meaningful oversight of the AFAM Department and ASPSA, and Crowder's paper class scheme was allowed to operate within one of the nation's premier academic institutions for almost two decades.
This investigation reveals stunning failures on the parts of the university as a whole, on down to the AFAM department and the two implicated administrators. But if anything, this report should spare the UNC athletics department from heavy blame; it was just taking advantage of the giant, effective shortcut sitting right there.
The NCAA, whose entire system serves to incentivize academic fraud exactly like this, says it will review the report for possible infractions.