UNC academics scandal still simmering

Last December, after three months of seemingly intense investigation, former North Carolina Governor Jim Martin's probe into academic fraud at North Carolina came to a close with relieving news for the Tar Heels. Martin's inquisition found that UNC's African and Afro-American Studies department oversaw anomalies -- such as unauthorized grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time," as Robbi Pickeral detailed at the time -- that affected all enrolled students, not just athletes. The scandal, Martin's report concluded, was not about athletics. "It was an academic scandal, which is worse," he said.

At the time, UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham looked forward to closing the file on a long, embarrassing, suspicion-raising inquiry into the legitimacy of North Carolina's athletics education efforts. His relief was palpable:

"I feel like it's now complete," Cunningham said. "This report has been very thorough, an exhaustive study. From that standpoint, we've been looking for closure, and I hope this gives us the closure we've been looking for."

In other words, the UNC academic scandal was supposed to go away in December. It was supposed to be over. Five months later, we still don't know much, but we do know at least one thing: This is anything but over.

The latest development came this past weekend, when the Raleigh News & Observer's Dan Kane obtained and published emails exchanged between former UNC African studies chairman Julius Nyang’oro and Tar Heels support staff via a public records request. Those emails, which are available here, were not included in other investigations, and reveal that Nyang'oro had what Kane calls a "cozy relationship with the program that tutored athletes." Yeah. Yikes.

There are messages discussing football tickets, athletics receptions/brunches and sideline access for Nyang'oro and his family. Another exchange shows Nyang'oro agreeing to meet with a support staffer to discuss abstracts for a group of football players enrolled in "your AFAM 396 seminar course." In one 2009 passage, former football academic advisor Cynthia Reynolds wrote to Nyang'oro that, “I hear you are doing me a big favor this semester and that I should be bringing you lots of gifts and cash???????” That appears to have been a joke -- it would take a profound level of stupidity to seriously write something like that from your professional public institution's email account, and Kane found no evidence the remark was made in reference to anything specific -- but it looks horrible given the context.

Perhaps the most damning exchange came in March 2010, when Jaimie Lee, an academics counselor for athletes, asked Nyang'oro about a Swahili class:

“I failed to mention yesterday that Swahili 403 last summer was offered as a research paper course,” wrote Lee, who was helping football players at the time. “I meant to (ask), do you think this may happen again in the future?? If not the summer, maybe the fall?”

Nyang’oro responded: “Driving a hard bargain; should have known.....:)Will have to think about this, but talk to me....”

Nyang’oro did not schedule the Swahili class, but he did create another one for the summer. Later that day, he emailed Lee: “I have added AFAM 398 to our Summer Schedule….:).”

Lee responded with a similar emoticon: “:-) thanks! I appreciate that!

This isn't just bad because a professor added a class after receiving an inquiry from a fellow educator, which would look awful in an email transcript but could otherwise be innocent. It's bad because Kane found UNC records that show that at least one seminar of AFAM 398 was added to the following summer schedule, and only two students enrolled. According to the News & Observer, "at least one was an athlete." UNC wouldn't disclose further information about the class, citing possible privacy violations under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, the well-intended but oft-abused-by-universities federal law.

In all, the emails still fall short of smoking gun status. There is no direct evidence UNC athletics played an active role in academic fraud committed by the AFAM department. UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp and others have maintained that position -- that advisors did not collaborate with Nyang'oro to create classes to keep players eligible. That may still be true, even if only technically so, but these emails make it harder than ever to believe. Offer tickets? Arrange meetings? Make jokes in poor taste? Ask questions about previously suspicious seminar classes? All of these things are now on the record. At the very least, they prove UNC's AFAM department had a relationship -- an uncomfortably cozy relationship -- with the people in charge of making sure UNC's star athletes stayed academically eligible.

Who knows what the next wave of emails will bring?