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Nearly 2 years after Martin report, Wainstein takes aim at UNC-Chapel Hill

  • Harry Lynch - hlynch@newsobserver.com
    Ken Wainstein, former top U.S. Justice Department official gives a status update Friday, June 20, 2014 to the UNC Board of Governors on his investigation into the academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill.
    After eight months of investigation, attorney Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. Homeland Security adviser and top Justice Department official, is expected to release his findings Wednesday into the long-running academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill.
    Wainstein’s probe is the third investigation led or backed by UNC tasked with finding out what went wrong. Here are 10 key questions in the case:
    1 When did it begin?
    Gov. Jim Martin’s report pegged the fraudulent classes to the fall of 1997, though some evidence suggested they started in 1994. But Martin did not talk with Julius Nyang’oro, former chair of the African studies department or Deborah Crowder; their cooperation with Wainstein might pinpoint when the classes started.
    2 Why did it begin?
    Martin said some classes may have resulted from Crowder's desire to help anyone in need of a class. He also suggested Nyang’oro used the classes to boost enrollments in his department, which could lead to more staff and resources. But one UNC email suggested Crowder was concerned the classes had gotten into the “frat circuit,” which indicates she didn’t want everyone to have access.
    3 Who else knew?
    Numerous emails show counselors in the tutoring program for athletes knew the classes didn’t meet, only required a paper and weren’t challenging. Another document indicated a Swahili professor knew about them in asking that a football player be placed in a “paper” class. Whistleblower Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist in the tutoring program, said it was common knowledge within the program that the classes were being used to keep academically challenged athletes eligible to play sports.
    4 Did athletic officials raise questions about the no-show classes, and if so, to whom?
    Athletic officials told Martin that after an independent study scandal at Auburn University in 2006, they had raised questions about the AFAM classes to the Faculty Committee on Athletics. But no documentation supports the claim, and Martin cited only one member of the committee – Jack Evans, then UNC’s faculty representative to the NCAA – who recalled such concerns. Martin later had to retract the finding.
    5 Had the university admitted athletes who struggled to do college-level work?
    Willingham said her review of testing data found more than 120 athletes over an eight-year-period who could not read at a high-school level. University officials and experts they hired dismissed her research as seriously flawed and said it overestimated the number of athletes who had trouble doing college-level work. Academic records independently obtained by the N&O suggested athletes with subpar academic abilities were being admitted, and needed heavy tutoring.
    6 Why were so many athletes taking Swahili?
    Eighteen Swahili language classes were identified as no-show classes. Other records show athletes paying little attention in Swahili classes that did meet.
    7 Is it an athletic scandal?
    Martin and UNC officials have said no, because all students had access to the classes and received the same high grades. But earlier this year, UNC officials began acknowledging the disproportionate numbers of athletes enrolled needed further explanation. In June, ESPN and the N&O reported high numbers of no-show classes and independent studies among members of the 2005 men’s basketball team. Later that month, UNC announced the NCAA had reopened its investigation.
    8 Were tutors writing papers for athletes?
    Rashad McCants, a star of the 2005 men’s basketball team, made this claim on ESPN. Other evidence has raised questions about tutors overstepping their roles in helping athletes.
    9 What drove the hundreds of grade changes in these classes?
    Martin’s report found 560 suspicious grade changes. Some may have been as innocuous as a student turning in a paper late due to sickness; others might involve something more nefarious.
    10 Did the scandal go beyond the no-show classes in the African studies department?
    Transcripts and other records show athletes often enrolled in the same classes, suggesting the goal was to keep them eligible, not to help them pursue a degree that best fit their abilities and interests.

    Wednesday events surrounding the Wainstein report:
    • 10:30 a.m.: UNC-CH’s Board of Trustees and the UNC Board of Governors will hear Kenneth Wainstein present the report. They have signaled much of the meeting, or at least portions of it, will be closed to the public.
    • 1 p.m.: Wainstein, Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC system President Tom Ross will conduct a news conference at UNC’s Kenan Center. It will be broadcast live at carolinacommitment.unc.edu. The report will also be made available then at the same website.
    • 5 p.m.: Folt will lead a town hall meeting of students, staff and faculty in G100 of the Genome Sciences Center.
    • 6 p.m.: Folt will take questions from the Board of Visitors and former trustees in an invitation-only video webcast.

  • Nearly two years ago, UNC-Chapel Hill trustees and the UNC Board of Governors listened to what was supposed to be the definitive report into the long-running academic scandal.
    “The hard questions have been asked, and today we have the answers,” Chancellor Holden Thorp said before former Gov. Jim Martin stepped up to the lectern to deliver his report.
    Martin’s 74-page report found that the no-show classes stretched back to the 1990s. But Martin didn’t review student transcripts or emails among the various parties connected to the fraud, nor did he have cooperation from the two people at its center.
    On Wednesday, the two top panels governing the university will gather again. This time they will be hearing a report from a former top U.S. Justice Department official, Kenneth Wainstein. His team has gone where Martin hadn’t, and it has the cooperation of former African studies chairman Julius Nyang’oro and his longtime department manager Deborah Crowder.
    After the meeting, Chancellor Carol Folt will spend much of the day reaching out to the university community. She will take questions at a news conference, conduct a town hall meeting with students, staff and faculty and finish the day with a video conference for members of the Board of Visitors and former trustees.
    Aiding her is a high-powered public relations firm, Edelman, a Washington, D.C., group that has at least 14 people working to getting out the university’s message.
    Spokesman Joel Curran said the firm began helping the university improve its communications in May. He couldn’t immediately say how much they are being paid.
    He said the overall effort Wednesday reflects a “strong statement for how the university intends to behave and communicate.”
    “It’s very important for people to understand that this is an important part of our DNA as Carolina,” Curran said. “That we’re open and we’re communicating.”
    Kane: 919-829-4861
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