How UNC athletes found suspect classes

Ever since the University of North Carolina revealed in May that football and basketball players made up a high number of enrollments in 54 suspect African-American Studies classes, a major question has been: how did so many athletes end up there?

According to a report released Thursday by a special faculty committee looking into the academic fraud scandal, academic counselors assigned to help athletes likely had a hand in that push.

According to the 13-page report, which was authored by three professors:

  • "Although we may never know for certain, it was our impression from multiple interviews that a department staff member managed to use the system to help players by directing them to enroll in classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department that turned out to be aberrant or irregularly taught. We were told that athletes claimed they had been sent to Julius Nyang’oro by the ASPSA (Academic Support Program for Student Athletes). This raises the question of whether they could also have been sent to other departments by the Loudermilk counselors."

  • "It seems likely that someone in the African and Afro-American Studies Department called athletics counselors (who are professionally trained and hired by the College of Arts and Sciences) to tell them that certain courses would be available; it is less clear whether staff at the Loudermilk Center actually contacted departments to ask about the availability of classes (e.g., Nyang’oro’s Summer School class). While we do not know exactly what transpired, clearly there is considerable uncertainty in the relationship between academic departments and athletic counselors. …"

Academic counselors for athletes at UNC are not supposed to steer them to particular classes. But the report notes that it likely happened because the academic advising staff for all students -- which is located in a different building than the athletic counselors -- have an average ratio of 500-students-to-one-counselor.

The report also noted that the academic support program is supposed to be under the auspices of College of Arts and Sciences, but its funding comes from the athletics department. Also, its director, Robert Mercer, reports to both the College of Arts and Sciences and to John Blanchard, a senior associate athletics director.

The University probe, which released its findings back in May, found that from 2007 to 2011, 54 courses within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies had little or no instruction, and some included unauthorized grade changes. One class, opened just days before the start of a summer session, contained 18 football players and one former football player, The News & Observer first reported.

UNC has said that athletes did not receive more favorable treatment than non-athletes in the classes; and that no student received a grade without submitting work that was assigned.

UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham told Inside Carolina recently that the NCAA was informed about the aberrant and irregular classes before it sanctioned the football program last March for impermissible benefits and academic fraud involving a tutor. He said he didn't anticipate the NCAA would further investigate the Af-Am Studies matter.

The faculty report Thursday reiterated that when it came to the Af-Am Studies courses, "there was a clear finding that only the former chair Julius Nyang’Oro and Deborah Crowder, a former staff member, had been involved in problems with the courses in the department.”

Nyang’oro has been forced into retirement, and Crowder retired in 2009.

The report calls for an independent commission of outside experts in higher education to review athletics and academics at the University. The committee did not find any errors in the school’s original investigation into the Af-Am Studies department, but suggests there should be a better system for signing off on course forms; that there should be more monitoring of student records and more oversight in University departments; and that student-athletes should be advised by the academic side of the University.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.