Tarnished Tar Heels: UNC's Ongoing Academic Fraud Scandal

George Lynn Cross, the longest serving president of the University of Oklahoma, famously answered a skeptical state legislator’s query about why the school needed a boost in allocations by explaining, “I would like to build a university of which the football team could be proud.”

For an example demonstrating the misplaced priorities evoked in Cross’s witticism, one would be hard pressed to do better than the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s ongoing scandal involving athletes, A’s, and an African and Afro-American Studies class that never met. Nineteen current or former football players enrolled in a summer 2011 course, “African and Afro-American Studies 280: Blacks in North Carolina,” that never bothered to convene despite the school paying Professor Julius Nyang’oro $12,000 to teach it.

Nyang’oro, described as “an internationally respected scholar” in the New York Times’ New Year’s Eve account of the scandal, stands accused of “teaching” dozens of such phantom courses. “It is one of more than 200 such lecture-style classes dating back to the mid-1990s that show little or no evidence of any instruction,” Dan Kane reports at the Raleigh News and Observer about the summer 2011 course under investigation. “These classes included roughly 500 grade changes that are either confirmed to be or suspected of being unauthorized.”

Nyang’oro resigned his position in July 2012 after 25 years, most of which he spent as department chairman, on the school’s faculty. Last month, an Orange County, North Carolina grand jury indicted the professor on felony charges involving fraudulent obtainment of property over the controversy. Despite focusing on one course, prosecutors believe that “Blacks in North Carolina” represents many such nonexistent courses offered primarily to athletes for very real grades.

But much surrounding the case remains a mystery because the interests of the accused defrauder and the defrauded compel them to remain silent. A UNC-sponsored investigation by the state’s former governor, Jim Martin, for instance, left many observers with more questions than answers.

Nyang’oro stonewalls for understandable reasons. He faces jail time. The university stonewalls for understandable, if inexcusable, reasons. Their football and basketball teams could face major NCAA sanctions.

“University officials and [former North Carolina governor Jim] Martin have said the fraud was not tied to athletics because nonathletes were in the classes and had the same access and grades,” Dan Kane reported last month. “But the university has yet to show that nonathletes had the same level of help athletes received in enrolling in the classes and in writing the term papers that were typically required for the courses. The university has also declined to release information that would shed more light on the scandal, such as how many athletes—particularly football and basketball players—enrolled in the earliest known no-show classes.”


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