The rumors have floated around for years: something was not right at the University of North Carolina. The prestigious 219-year-old Chapel Hill school is consistently listed among the highest ranked universities in the country and is renowned for its academics and the strength of its men's basketball and women's soccer teams.
But according to a damning independent report released on Wednesday, thousands of students have benefitted from a corrupt system that has allowed them to take phony "paper classes" for the past 18 years in order to keep their sports eligibility. The scandal has already taken down four employees and now it could put some of the school's national sports championships in jeopardy.
One professor is called out, but he's probably not alone
"These counselors saw the paper classes and the artificially high grades they yielded as key to helping some student-athletes remain eligible," said former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, who was hired by UNC to independently investigate the academic fraud exposed by a number of media outlets in 2010. The eight-month investigation yielded a 131-page report that found that at least 3,000 students took the paper classes, but Wainstein said that number could actually be much higher.
Five years after the scandal was first uncovered, UNC administrators admitted that the fraud included not just academics, but also its vaunted athletics program, leading to the four firings and the disciplining of five other employees. It is especially damning because UNC has long had a reputation as a school where sports and academics were strongly tied together and student athletes were expected to excel on the field and in the classroom.
According to CNN (which is one of the outlets that originally broke the story), for most of the past five years, UNC has said that the paper classes were mostly the fault of one rogue professor: African American studies program chair Julius Nyang'oro. The report found that Nyang'oro's assistant, Debbie Crowder, created the paper classes because she felt sympathy for athletes and other students who were not "the best and the brightest."
But, Nyang'oro reportedly went along with the scheme after he got wind of it. Wainstein said it was an open secret on campus that Crowder was an easy grader and give out high marks without worrying about content, but did not offer up grades unless papers were actually submitted and didn't change grades that had already been given.
The report found that five other counselors also used the "GPA booster" phony classes and at least two -- one in football -- suggested to Crowder the grades an athlete needed to be able to continue to play. Crowder reportedly named Nyang'oro as an instructor on the paper classes she created, even though she was fully in charge of them. "It is not clear whether Crowder ever got Nyang'oro's explicit approval to arrange these irregular independent studies. It is clear, however, that he ultimately learned about these classes and acquiesced in them by taking no action to put a halt to them," Wainstein reported.
The year Crowder -- who the report said "actively" tried to cover up her activities -- announced she was retiring there was a huge spike in enrollment of her classes because football counselors encouraged athletes to sign up.
Are UNC's championships at risk now?
The report claims that former head football coach John Bunting said he knew of the paper classes, as did his successor, Butch Davis. But current men's basketball coach, Roy Williams, adamantly denies any knowledge. Here's the thing, though: the report has been shared with the NCAA and could have huge implications for the university's sports program, according to CNN.
During the nearly two decades the report covers, UNC has won three national basketball championships (1993, 2005 and 2009), which could be vacated along with many of the team's wins. The scandal could also impact other sports, as it noted a big spike in enrollment of Olympic-sport athletes between 2003 and 2005.
Bunting said he knew that the paper classes were part of a strategy to keep players eligible, and the report shows that during his tenure there was a clear rise in the enrollment of football players in the paper classes; Davis was fired in the wake of the scandal in 2011. Hoops coach Williams, however, has said he had no knowledge of the fraud and the report showed a drop in enrollment in the easy-A classes by basketball players during his tenure.