The Scandal Bowl: Tar Heels Football, Academic Fraud, and Implicit Racism

The North Carolina Tar Heels take on Duke Blue Devils at the Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Nov. 30 Photograph by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The recent criminal indictment of an African American studies scholar at the University of North Carolina sheds dismaying light on how big-time college sports corrupt academics. This scandal, unfolding since 2011, has the potential to destroy a vaunted football program at a prestigious public university. The impact could be—and ought to be—far broader than that of the Penn State child-rape debacle. That’s because the deceit in Chapel Hill points to more systemic weaknesses than the failure in University Park to stop one monster coach who preyed on little boys. And the Tar Heels fiasco adds race to the toxic mixture of athletics and rank hypocrisy.

Last month a grand jury in Orange County, N.C., indicted Julius Nyang’oro for defrauding UNC by accepting payment for teaching a no-show course on “blacks in North Carolina.” The 19 students in AFAM 280 were current or former members of the Tar Heels football team, allegedly steered to the phantom class by academic advisers who sought to help elite athletes maintain high enough grades to remain eligible for competition. AFAM 280 was one of dozens of courses offered by North Carolina’s African & Afro-American Studies Department, formerly chaired by Nyang’oro, that never actually met, according to investigators. Known for rigorous academics, North Carolina allegedly operated a Potemkin department since the late 1990s. (The New York Times drew my attention to the Chapel Hill scandal with a New Year’s Day front-page article; the Raleigh News & Observer has been all over the story for more than two years.)

The scope of the apparent wrongdoing defies belief. One investigation by a former governor of North Carolina, James Martin, found that as many as 560 unauthorized grade changes were made, often with forged faculty signatures. Nyang’oro, a native of Tanzania who ran the Afro-American department for 20 years, even though he frequently spent extended periods of time overseas, has refused so far to explain himself publicly. His criminal defense lawyer says the disgraced professor didn’t violate the law and is being used as a scapegoat.

Whether the highly unusual criminal charges against Nyang’oro will stick is an open question. Prosecutors face a major challenge in proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the ex-professor, who retired from the university in July 2012, defrauded a former employer where numerous other employees and senior officials almost certainly caught a whiff of something going bad in the Afro-Am building.

Meanwhile, several observations, based on my first perusal of the grim dispatches from North Carolina:

• UNC is trying—unconvincingly—to limit its culpability by blaming Nyang’oro. The professor’s academic career appears to be over, and justifiably so. But he cannot possibly have executed this massive lie on his own. The university’s provost, James Dean Jr., told the Times that UNC couldn’t have anticipated or detected Nyang’oro’s 14-year-long reign of fraud. “Universities for a very long time have been based on trust,” the provost said. “One of the ramifications of this is that now we can no longer operate on trust.” That’s laughable. I predict that further investigation will reveal that the fraud reached deep into the Tar Heel athletic hierarchy and that senior academic officials will also turn out to have been at least aware of improprieties. Now that he’s been indicted, Nyang’oro has an incentive to tell prosecutors who knew what he was doing and who encouraged him to do it. “There’s been one side of this story that has been put forth in the press,” the former professor’s lawyer told reporters in December. Now Nyang’oro “is going to have an opportunity to present his side.”

• UNC and the NCAA are trying to conceal that the fraud was specifically designed to pad the transcripts of varsity athletes. The News & Observer’s reporting shows a clear pattern of both the university and the National Collegiate Athletic Association attempting to deflect attention from the connection between Tar Heel athletics and the no-show Afro-Am courses. Even though athletes made up a disproportionate percentage of the suspect class rosters, the presence of a few nonathletes has prompted UNC and the NCAA to play down the sports-related nature of the corruption. UNC has sought to limit the release of information that would shed more light on that connection, the News & Observer reported in November. The university “has refused the N&O’s request, for example, for basketball and football enrollments in the earliest known fraudulent classes.” It is past time for UNC to bare all and clean house.

• Implicit racism colors this entire episode. One of the most horrifying aspects of the exploitation of high-level college athletes, especially football and basketball players, is the vastly disproportionate impact on African American “students.” Too many black athletes with unrealistic dreams of NBA or NFL stardom arrive on campus unprepared academically and are allowed to depart with little meaningful classroom education. Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA and now a critic of its practices, has described the “plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today’s campus executives”—painful words, carefully chosen. Would UNC have tolerated the thorough undermining of an entire academic department other than Afro-American studies? Hard to picture. Could Nyang’oro and those who presumably aided and abetted him have come up with course titles any more likely to please skeptics of black-oriented scholarship?

The first three classes confirmed to have been fraudulent, according to the News & Observer, pretended to offer students training in the Swahili language. An old-time Carolina Klan member couldn’t have conjured that detail in his most virulent daydream.

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