KU chancellor remains mum about UNC academic fraud

After years of rumors and allegations, a recently released investigation confirmed there was widespread academic fraud at the University of North Carolina involving thousands of students, many of them athletes, who received high grades for fake classes over a period of 18 years.

The academic fraud may be one of the worst in collegiate history, and college leaders on campuses across the United States are roiling from the breadth of it.

But here in Lawrence, all is quiet, even though one of UNC’s chief academic officers during a 10-year period when the number of students taking fake classes was at its highest is now at the helm of Kansas University.

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, a UNC professor and administrator for 38 years, has refused requests from the Journal-World and others to discuss the scandal. Early leaks about the investigation’s findings last winter led her to release a short statement in February:

“If I’d known of the problems in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies that have since come to light I would have taken action to address them.”

Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a KU spokeswoman, said the chancellor was not contacted by investigators and would have no further comment.

“We won’t engage on the topic further,” Barcomb-Peterson said in an email.

Last year, UNC hired Kenneth L. Wainstein, a former U.S. Department of Justice official, to conduct an in-depth investigation meant to get to the core of the problem.

The complex scheme of fake classes at UNC first came to light in 2009, the same year that Gray-Little accepted the KU chancellor position. A UNC secretary who had managed hundreds of fake classes had announced the year before that she was retiring in 2009, and panic ensued, the Wainstein report said.

The director of the African and Afro-American Studies program was persuaded by sports staff to continue the classes to some extent, the report said. But after a professor went to the local newspaper in about 2011, investigations began sprouting internally and by the NCAA.

Wainstein’s 131-page report, put together with a team of attorneys, was released Oct. 22 and found that while only a few people knew the specific details of the “paper classes,” a large number among the administration, faculty and athletic staff were aware there were classes that were irregular and didn’t meet academic standards. Those people also knew that a number of advisors were steering student athletes to the fake classes, but did nothing, the report says.

From 2006 to 2009, Gray-Little held the second and third highest positions of power at UNC — provost and executive vice chancellor. From 1999 to 2006, she was dean of the college of arts and sciences, executive associate provost and senior associate dean.

Those positions placed Gray-Little in a position of responsibility and oversight over the African and Afro-American Studies program and its curriculum.

Some say while Gray-Little may not have known details about the paper classes, they find it difficult to believe she did not know certain aspects of the program because so many student athletes took the fake classes and so many administrators, professors and athletic staff knew about the easy classes.

“It was well known among those who should have known better,” said J. Hedyt Philbeck, attorney for Mary Willingham, a whistleblower who learned about the fraud, reported it to UNC’s general counsel and, when nothing had been done, went outside UNC to report it in 2010. She resigned in May because of what she called a hostile work environment.

Willingham has a pending lawsuit against the university and declined to comment for this story.

Emmett Gill, national coordinator of the Student Athletes Human Rights Project, also believes that in the positions Gray-Little held at UNC in the 2000s, she should have known.

“It’s problematic,” Gill said. “It’s hard to believe that in the positions of the deans, provosts, associate provosts, it’s hard to believe that someone did not know. They are the ones that approve the curriculums.”

The Student Athletes Human Rights Project wants to know what Gray-Little knows about the fraud and about steering students to classes that didn’t meet academic standards. The group filed an Office of Civil Rights complaint earlier this year, saying that a large number of black student athletes were discriminated against when UNC denied them access to quality curriculum and quality books when they were enrolled in the paper classes.

The complaint lists Gray-Little as a potential witness. It was dismissed recently on a technicality, Gill said, but the group is planning to file a new complaint later this month and include the more specific information in the Wainstein report.

Gray-Little was aware that student athletes who did not qualify academically were being enrolled at UNC, former UNC administrator Madeline Levine said earlier this year.

Levine said she spoke to Gray-Little in 2006 about her concerns regarding an athlete who appeared to be functionally illiterate.

At the time, Levine, a Slavic literature professor, was the interim dean of the College of Arts and Science. Levine had been appointed in July 2006 to fill in for Gray-Little, who was vacating the position after she was promoted to provost and executive vice chancellor, one step removed from the UNC chancellor.

Levine also wrote about the meeting in January in a letter to UNC Chancellor Carol Folk and Provost Jim Dean about the academic fraud scandal that “UNC has been publicly embroiled for the past three years.”

Levine wrote that as interim dean she had learned about “serious academic deficiencies the newly recruited athletes would have to overcome if they were ever to succeed at UNC.”

“From what I was told…I thought it highly probable that one of these students was functionally illiterate,” she wrote. “Troubled by this, and unsure what if anything I could do, I sought advice from our then provost.”

Gray-Little told Levine the decision to grant special admission to the student had already been made, Levine said.

“‘There was nothing to be done about it by then,”‘ Levine recalled Gray-Little saying. “That was true, but I still feel guilty that I let the matter drop and did not publicly express my dismay.”

Gray-Little was asked about the meeting through a spokesperson, according to media accounts, but she responded that she could not remember.

A number of other administrators and athletic staff also couldn’t remember details, according to the Wainstein report.

For example, after Deborah Crowder, the secretary who was managing the fake classes, retired, Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes staff convened a special meeting with the football coaching staff in November 2009.

During the meeting, the support staff explained how serious the situation was and how the paper classes had played a major role in keeping athletes eligible. They explained the classes no longer existed. In a slide presentation, the coaching staff was told how the students took classes they didn’t attend, they didn’t take notes and they didn’t have to meet with professors. On one slide, support staff wrote, “THESE NO LONGER EXIST!”

Coach Paul H. Davis, Jr. was present at the slide show meeting. But Davis later told investigators that he could not recall the presentation and denied knowing about the fake classes.

Davis was fired in 2011 over academic fraud and other NCAA violations.

While Wainstein has said that the investigation was not meant to judge, his report said a decentralized, hands-off management style allowed the fraud to continue for years.

“Despite the fact that these classes involved thousands of students…the Chapel Hill administration never scrutinized (the African and Afro-American Studies program) operations or the academic integrity of their course offerings,” the report said. “It was only when media reports raised questions about (the) classes in 2011 that administration officials took a hard look…They were shocked with what they found.”