Report on UNC scandal meets disbelief, resignation

Feb. 07, 2013 @ 04:44 PM

CHAPEL HILL — Members of North Carolina's governing board for public universities shed doubt Thursday that previous investigations into a long-running academic fraud scandal cleared the athletics department at the state's flagship university.

The scandal helped prompt the resignation of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp and firing of football coach Butch Davis. Earlier investigations found there were dozens of courses going back to 1997 in UNC-Chapel Hill's Department of African and Afro-American Studies that had instructors who didn't teach, grades that were changed and grade reports faked.

An investigation led by former chemistry professor and Gov. Jim Martin found that the academic fraud began in 1997, was confined to the school's African studies department, and was the result of wrongdoing by the former chairman and a department administrator. An earlier probe found irregularities in the department dating from 2007.

A panel selected by the 17-campus UNC system's Board of Governors to review reports by Martin's team and four other internal investigations released a report Thursday that revealed disbelief from the broader board. The report largely accepted earlier findings that cleared athletics officials of a conspiracy to channel academically ill-equipped athletes into courses designed to protect their eligibility, while also acknowledging panel members were unable to resolve lingering questions.

"This stuff was propagated for 14 years basically by two people without additional collusion?" university board member Fred Eshelman of Wilmington said.

An addition to the Martin investigation looked at the proportion of athletes in 172 suspect lecture and independent-study courses between 2001 and 2012, the grades they received, and other areas. Student-athletes made up about 45 percent of the enrollment in the problem courses, all students had an equal opportunity to enroll in those courses, and only about one out of four of the student-athletes who took an African studies course in that time were enrolled in suspect courses, the additional study said. A comparison with another 172 African studies courses cleared of links to the academic scandal found that athletes made up 49 percent of the enrollment.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell blasted the consultants who provided much of the legwork for Martin's report, saying they relied on statistical evidence and failed to interview key people involved in the scandal.

"It was inconceivable that it was two people who did this. You have 172 fake classes. Forty-five percent of the students in there are athletes. That is way disproportionate for their number on campus, which was less than five percent who are athletes. Somehow they are being directed to those courses," Mitchell said. "There is, to my mind, a good deal of evidence that throughout this campus there were a large number of people, particularly in athletics, who knew that these courses did not amount to anything."

The chairman of the UNC system's review panel, Asheville attorney W. Louis Bissette Jr., admitted elements of the scandal haven't been resolved. For example, the committee was told there were no records that could show how many freshman non-athletes were able to enroll in and complete African studies courses designed for upper-level students.

Football player Marvin Austin took an upper-level African studies class and received a B-plus before he enrolled as a full-time freshman and took remedial writing, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported. Discovery of Austin's course enrollment prompted an internal probe that found the bogus African studies courses. Austin was declared ineligible to play for the Tar Heels after a related investigation found football players who received improper financial benefits. He now plays defensive tackle for the New York Giants.

"All of the questions are not answered, there's no question about that," Bissette said. "There's no evidence that the athletic department or anyone else had any collusion in setting up these courses and administering them."

But Bissette did say people in the department knew that this was a good place for students to go to probably get a good grade without a lot of effort.

UNC-Chapel Hill athletics spokesman Steve Kirschner declined comment Thursday.

The best hope of answering remaining questions in the scandal lie with a local prosecutor and State Bureau of Investigation agents, who are investigating whether any laws were broken and have the power to compel testimony from witnesses, Mitchell and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans said.

"We have found out about everything that's going to be found out about this," Mitchell said.