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Report Says UNC Grade-Boosting Scandal Involved Fake Classes

University of North Carolina system President Tom Ross and UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt talk during a special joint meeting of the UNC Board of Governors and the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees on Wednesday.
Gerry Broome
University of North Carolina system President Tom Ross and UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt talk during a special joint meeting of the UNC Board of Governors and the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees on Wednesday.

Fake classes, inflated grades and one academic department that facilitated it all. Those are all detailed in a newly released report on grade-fixing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The scandal came to light in 2011, but the report out Wednesday offers the most wide-sweeping look yet at how some school staff members boosted the grades of more than 3,000 students — nearly half of them athletes — over nearly 20 years.

The 131-page report centers on two people in the school's Department of African and Afro-American Studies: former Student Services Manager Deborah Crowder and Dr. Julius Nyang'oro, who became chairman of curriculum for the department known as AFAM in 1992.

According to the report, Crowder steered student-athletes toward fake classes for years to keep them eligible to play.

It states:

"Specifically, she designed and offered what are called 'paper classes.' These were classes that were taught on an independent study basis for students and student-athletes whom Crowder selected. Like traditional independent studies at Chapel Hill or any other campus, these classes entailed no class attendance and required only the submission of a single research paper. Unlike traditional independent studies, however, there was no faculty member involved in managing the course and overseeing the student's research and writing process. In fact, the students never had a single interaction with a faculty member; their only interaction was with Crowder, the Student Services Manager who was not a member of the University faculty."

After Crowder retired in 2009, Nyang'oro allegedly kept the grade-fixing scheme going.

University leadership ordered the independent investigation. It was conducted by Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor. Among other key findings in the report:

  • Crowder and Nyang'oro "developed and ran a 'shadow curriculum' within the AFAM Department" between 1993 and 2011.
  • Student athletes make up just 4 percent of the student body at UNC Chapel Hill but constituted almost half of the students ID'd in the "paper classes."
  • The "paper class" scheme went on for 18 years and included 188 courses.
  • Some academic counselors in the school's athletic department helped steer student-athletes to the AFAM courses.
  • Crowder's retirement in 2009 worried counselors so much that they "instructed players to submit their papers before Crowder's departure to receive the benefit of her liberal grading."
  • The wrongdoing ended in 2011. And higher-ups at the school didn't try to "obscure the facts or the magnitude of this situation."
  • No other academic departments besides AFAM were involved.
  • UNC had a "loose, decentralized approach" to how it managed its academic departments that allowed the grade inflation to continue for years.
  • The report says Crowder "believed it was her duty to lend a helping hand to struggling students, and in particular to that subset of student-athletes who came to campus without adequate academic preparation for Chapel Hill's demanding curriculum."

    The university released a statement on the report with an apology from UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt:

    "I apologize first to the students who entrusted us with their education and took these courses. You deserved so much better from your University, and we will do everything we can to make it right... "I also want to apologize to the Carolina community — you have been hurt both directly and indirectly by this wrongdoing, even though you had no knowledge or responsibility for it, and many of you were not even here when most or all of it occurred."

    North Carolina Public Radio has been following the story and reported Thursday that four UNC staff members have been fired and five others are under disciplinary review.

    The university says it will take several actions in the wake of the report, including:

  • Launching a new public records website to "enhance accountability";
  • Adding faculty to a group to review student-athlete eligibility;
  • Establishing a working group to help people share concerns about academics;
  • And implementing a plan to "stabilize the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies."
  • WUNC's Jeff Tiberri reported on the story for All Things Considered on Thursday. He says UNC is not alone in controversies like this one. "There have been other scandals involving no-show, fake-paper classes at Auburn University and the University of Michigan," he said, adding, "This report is the most comprehensive of anything to date."

    Tiberri also said that UNC has not yet indicated whether diplomas from the thousands of students who took the phony classes will be reviewed.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.

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