Fact-Checking Dan Kane's Latest Drive-By

In a now all-too-common Sunday tradition, the News and Observer's Dan Kane took another shot at UNC and the academic unpleasantness with yet another breathless headline. Once again, Kane's take doesn't hold up to deeper scrutiny.

Dan Kane of the Raleigh News and Observer got both the ABCer message boards and national talking heads all riled up with Sunday's latest installment of the waterboarding that is the UNC academic scandal, this time under the headline "UNC faculty leader pushed rewrite of key report to keep NCAA away." Only that's not really what happened, but then again, why let details get in the way of a good story?

In the litany of thousands of documents that are part of routine records requests from media outlets, Kane identified a series of emails between a faculty subcommittee tapped to draft a report representing a faculty point of view about the issues surrounding the African and Afro-American Studies program at UNC. These emails are from over a year ago, June and July 2012, and detail the development and submission of the report written by faculty members Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Michael Gerhardt, and Steven Bachenheimer and submitted to UNC's faculty chair, Jan Boxill.

The gist of Kane's story is that Boxill pushed for a key edit in the report that removed the name of Afro-American Studies Department administrative assistant Deborah Crowder and a description of her as "extremely close" to athletics, in that making such a connection might bring unwanted NCAA scrutiny. In addition, Boxill asked the authors to consider changing another sentence that referenced what they had heard athletes supposedly said, arguing that such a statement was hearsay. The authors agreed to make the change to remove Crowder's name and athletics connection but refused to make the other change and it stayed in the report.

Of course the national media, which has served as an echo chamber for much of Kane's reporting, has jumped on what on the surface seems like a key faculty leader scrubbing an important fact in an effort to potentially throw the NCAA off the scent. Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated threw out some snarky comments, and the normally level-headed and reliable John Infante of the NCAA Bylaw Blog implied this was some sort of cover-up. The only problem is the national media is relying on Kane's account when the entire 122 pages of emails, in context, tells a somewhat different story.

Did Boxill, in her capacity as faculty chair, order the change in the report to keep the NCAA at bay, as Kane asserts? Well, no, according to the emails.

Kane writes, "The correspondence shows that hours before the report’s release on July 26, 2012, Faculty Council Chairman Jan Boxill sent the three faculty authors a last-minute email. It suggested they rewrite a sentence that painted a picture of a department manager creating bogus classes to protect athletes’ eligibility to play sports."

The emails show Boxill relayed the suggestion of some on the Faculty Executive Committee that Crowder's name and description as close to athletics be removed (p.61). Boxill did note "the worry is this could raise further NCAA issues and that is not the intention", but she added the members of the committee felt the description of Crowder was "not relevant and more 'gossipy' and 'unfacultylike'".

No other wording in the sentence or description of what happened were suggested to be changed.

In addition, Kane offers, "The authors grudgingly agreed to it, and some key information disappeared from the final version," but again the emails paint a somewhat different picture. Gerhardt says he is "ok with the first suggestion" (p. 62), and "on the merits the first suggestion is ok" (p.71). Maffly-Kipp says she doesn't agree with removing Crowder's name and does not understand why that would be a flag for the NCAA (p. 64). Maffly-Kipp later asks if Bachenheimer is in agreement with making the change and he simply replies "yes" (pp. 99-100). In fact, Kane himself writes that the authors "in email responses said they had no issue with the last-minute changes. Bachenheimer said in an email response that they 'were completely comfortable with the final subcommittee report.'" So that is not to say there wasn't dissension, but that hardly seems "grudging".

As for the "key information" that disappeared, the phrase "the involvement of Deborah Crowder seems to have been that of an athletics supporter who was extremely close to personnel in Athletics," was changed to "a department staff member". Nothing else in the paragraph, which notes that she used the system to direct players to aberrant or irregular classes, was changed.

***

I hope you'll forgive me if I do not agree with Kane's assessment that this somehow reaches the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. First, Kane's entire thrust of Boxill somehow orchestrating a key change to slip something past the NCAA is faulty. Boxill suggested two changes based on the comments of other faculty members and the authors agreed to one change and not the other, so only one change was made. It's not like she changed the report herself without the knowledge or consent of the faculty involved. Second, only the personal description of Crowder was changed, not the description of what she did. It is important to remember Crowder and her role were already public by this point, and it is a near certainty that the NCAA knew about her as well. It's not like removing her name and the idea that she was an "athletics supporter" and "extremely close" to the athletic department changes either what she did or what the NCAA knew or what they were going to do about it.

In addition, this was simply a faculty report prepared for the consumption of the faculty themselves as part of the faculty governance process. This was never meant to be a part of the University's official response to the NCAA, although it was a part of the institutional response to the larger issues in play. To make the assertion as Kane does that these relatively minor changes of 20 words in a 12-page report is part of a sleight-of-hand to throw off the NCAA is disingenuous at best. And the fact that the national media is parroting this story without context is intellectually lazy.

***

And one final note of interest as it relates to the News and Observer's presentation of this issue: the N&O offers two versions of the emails on its website. This link offers all 122 pages of emails, while this link offers only three pages - the one where Boxill asks the authors to make the editorial changes, one where Boxill asks to speak with the authors over the phone because she doesn't want her comments to show up in the N&O (a smart move given how it turned out because emails are public record), and one where Maffly-Kipp says she wants to send the report in a PDF file so Boxill can't edit it, in response to a concern by Gerhardt that Boxill wanted to water down the report.

The issue is that the three-page version is actually in reverse chronological order and therefore out of context. If someone read only that version and did not pay attention to the dates, it would appear that Boxill asked for revisions, then wanted to speak off the record, leading Gerhardt to worry about watering down and Maffly-Kipp wanting to send a PDF. The concern about watering down and file formats actually sprang from other concerns about the process and had nothing to do with the Crowder revision.

Why would the N&O cut-and-paste to purposefully edit the chronology of emails? Good question. Could it be that maybe the story and substance couldn't stand on its own? As we have said here many times, there are certainly more than enough real issues with the academic scandal at UNC to have to manufacture something like this.

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