UNC May Have Passed Football Players With 'Phantom' Classes

Jan 6, 2014
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Three years ago, officials at the University of North Carolina had trouble on their hands with an NCAA investigation that tarnished its football program. After the NCAA issued sanctions over financial ties between an assistant coach and a sports agent, it seemed the scandal was over. Far from it. That case spilled over into an entirely different controversy, this time over academic fraud.

A professor accused of holding phantom classes, forging faculty signatures and issuing fake grades to student athletes in a system thought to go back years. Dan Kane is an investigative journalist at The News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh. He joins us now to talk more about this. And, Dan, to start, I understand that the paper started investigating because of a plagiarized paper by a student.

DAN KANE: Yes. That's right. One of the football players kicked off the team basically because a tutor had done some improper work on his paper, sued to get back on the team. He felt that, you know, the punishment was too harsh and in suing, he made public the paper that was at issue and it turned out that it had all kinds of plagiarism in it and the name of the professor on the paper was Julius Nyang'Oro.

And obviously, one of the questions I had was, you know, why didn't this professor catch this very obvious plagiarism. A short time later I was able to get a hold of a transcript of another athlete who was caught up in that earlier scandal and the transcript showed that he had gotten a B plus in an upper level African studies class the summer before he began his first full semester as a freshman.

And what was really odd about that was his first semester he was supposed to take remedial writing. It just didn't add up. Those two things really suggested that there was something seriously wrong. Somebody contacted me who had some inside information into the tutoring program for athletes and what she basically said was that there were these, quote unquote, "paper classes" where the class didn't meet. They'd just be given a paper and they'd turn it in at the end and they got great grades.

CORNISH: The central figure here is the professor with the, at the time, the African and Afro-American studies department, Julius Nyang'Oro, and the accusation is that this goes back as many as 200 classes into the 1990s and that this department was being used to inflate athletes grades. But at this point, has there been any clear connection made between this department, this professor and higher-ups in the athletic department?

KANE: No. There haven't been. The connections have been with the tutoring program for athletes. We obtained, you know, correspondence that showed that the tutoring program, you know, they knew that these classes weren't meeting. They knew they weren't challenging and they were sticking, you know, academically-challenged freshmen even in these classes.

So the question really, you know, was there some sort of hand in hand relationship here and who all knew and, you know, we're still not quite there in terms of answering that question. There've been some investigations and they both basically said, well, this is not an athletic scandal. They can't find that tie between, say, you know, an athletic department official ordering or suggesting or, you know, somehow making this happen. But at the same time, there's still a lot of information that we don't know about because the university is just not releasing it.

CORNISH: And right now, the chair, the former chair of the African and Afro-American studies department, Julius Nyang'Oro, we know he's been indicted by a grand jury. What is the exact allegation and what's the state of the case now?

KANE: Yes. He has been charged with obtaining property through false pretenses. It's a felony charge. Essentially, he received $12,000 in summer pay for a class that he didn't teach. This was a class from 2011. And he created the class just a few days before the semester began. It filled with football players and the summer school dean, you know, noticed the number of students in there and said, well, you should be paid for this class. And he took it and then he didn't teach the class.

CORNISH: How has the school made - how has the school responded to this? Have they made any changes?

KANE: Oh, yeah. They have made changes. I mean, before, practically anybody could take an independent study, you know, in that department. That's ended. They've separated the tutoring program from the athletic department. It had this kind of dotted line relationship to the athletic department. That's gone. You know, there's a lot more supervision of, you know, enrollment. I mean, there were just a lot of things that they changed to respond to the, you know, the scandal.

CORNISH: Dan Kane, he's an investigative journalist at The News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

KANE: Well, thanks for having me on your show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.