UNC still dealing with aftermath of NCAA probe
CHAPEL HILL — Three months after the NCAA hit North Carolina's football program with sanctions, the school is still cleaning up the lingering mess that has become more than just an athletics issue.
In the past month, a university investigation launched amid the football probe into improper benefits and academic misconduct revealed embarrassing irregularities and suspect classes in an academic department, with football players making up more than a third of enrollments in those classes. It's an example of how school administrators are still sifting through what happened at a time when they had hoped it would all be behind them.
"I think everybody wants to make sure we have gotten to the bottom of this," said Thomas W. Ross, president of the 17-campus UNC public system. "We all think we have but we want to be sure because the integrity of the University of North Carolina — not just in Chapel Hill, but the entire system — is at stake."
In March, the NCAA imposed a one-year postseason ban and additional scholarship reductions on top of self-imposed school penalties that included 16 vacated wins and probation. It should've marked an end to the nearly 2-year-old probe, which forced 14 players to miss at least one game and seven to miss the 2010 season while also leading to the firing of coach Butch Davis.
Yet chancellor Holden Thorp spent part of Thursday addressing the UNC system's board of governors about what has now grown into an institutional problem.
The school investigation found fraud and poor oversight in 54 classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) between summer 2007 and summer 2011. That included unauthorized grade changes, reports of possibly forged faculty signatures on grade rolls, lack of appropriate supervision and infrequent classes.
"These are outrageous circumstances that we have discovered," Thorp told the board. "We are upset and disappointed. This is not what we expect from our university."
The board of governors has appointed a four-member panel to review the school's investigation.
The school also found that football players represented 36 percent of enrollments in those classes, including one that was a late addition to last summer's schedule and ended up with an enrollment solely of 18 football players and one former football player.
The school said former department chairman Julius Nyang'oro was paid $12,000 to teach the class in a lecture format, but instead ran an independent study requiring students to write papers. In a letter to university trustees last week, Thorp said the school is taking back the $12,000 and has referred the matter to the State Bureau of Investigation.
Thorp has said the school is investigating how the class was created and how students registered for it, though he said Thursday afternoon the school notified the NCAA when it discovered the AFAM problems last year — including the class consisting solely of current and former football players. Ross said in a phone interview the NCAA and school officials jointly investigated the issues.
In an email Thursday, NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn referred questions to the school when asked whether NCAA investigators planned to return to Chapel Hill.
The NCAA's ruling in March doesn't mention the AFAM investigation.
The school has said there is no evidence of favorable treatment for student-athletes or grades awarded without written work. Non-athletes made up about 42 percent of enrollments in the suspect courses.
The school's investigation directed blame toward Nyang'oro — who resigned as chairman in August and retires July 1 — and a now-retired administrator. Nyang'oro's name appears on grade rolls or as instructor for the majority of the suspect classes, including the one filled with football players last summer.
The administrator, Deborah Crowder, worked under Nyang'oro and didn't talk with investigators. UNC found no aberrant courses or unauthorized grade changes after her September 2009 retirement, according to last month's report.
Jon Sasser, Davis' attorney, said the football staff didn't direct players to Nyang'oro's classes. Sasser said Davis had never heard of Nyang'oro until plagiarism accusations surfaced last summer against a former player for a research paper from one of Nyang'oro's suspect classes — which helped spawn the university's probe.
"I think the thing that's frustrating to (Davis) is that people are blaming him for football players going to Professor Nyang'oro's class," Sasser said. "Butch doesn't know Professor Nyang'oro and never suggested that anybody take his class."
The problems in the AFAM department have also touched the Tar Heels men's basketball program. Players made up about 3 percent of the enrollments in the suspect courses, though there is no allegation of wrongdoing and coach Roy Williams didn't sound worried it would affect his program.
"It's not a basketball issue, regardless of what comes out," Williams said Thursday. "Am I going to be interested? You're darn right. Am I going to be sad if some negative thing comes out? You're darn right.... I'm worried about it from a university issue but not from a basketball issue."
The problems have also led to criticism of Thorp, an alumnus who became chancellor in 2008 and ran afoul of many football fans and donors by abruptly firing Davis just before last season.
But Wade Hargrove, the chairman of the school's board of trustees, said trustees have "complete confidence in (Thorp) and his commitment to resolve these issues."
"The investigation will continue as long as there are unanswered questions," Hargrove said. "And painful as it is, the hard questions are being asked and appropriate measures will be taken to hold accountable those parties that are responsible for any misconduct."