ICYMI: Academic Scandal Updates

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in UNC's 12-game basketball winning streak and the head-scratching, inexplicable #goacc moments of Syracuse losing to Georgia Tech followed by Duke losing to Wake Forest were a couple of interesting developments in the ongoing parade of UNC's academic unpleasantness.

First, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall announced this week he would not be pursuing an indictment against former AFAM administrative assistant Deborah Crowder in conjunction with the fraud charges leveled at former department chairman Julius Nyang'oro. Woodall also stated Crowder was cooperating with his office's investigation into Nyang'oro.

It is important not to read too much into this, as a lack of charges does not equal a lack of wrongdoing. While Crowder was implicated as being the person who facilitated most of the paperwork for the aberrant AFAM courses, that in and of itself is not necessarily a criminal offense (as opposed to what Nyang'oro was charged with, which was defrauding UNC out of $12,000 he received for teaching a class that never met). Perhaps more significant is the news that she is cooperating with the DA's investigation, which likely means she has rolled over on Nyang'oro. ABCers have hoped that the Nyang'oro case will go to trial with a lengthy airing of dirty laundry for UNC, but I don't believe the case was ever going to see the inside of a courtroom in the first place and Crowder's cooperation may be more incentive for Nyang'oro to plead out.

Second, UNC is looking at a potential cover jinx, but this time it's Business Week and not Sports Illustrated. BW's Paul Barrett, who jumped on the UNC scandal train after piggybacking on the reporting of both Dan Kane and the New York Times, penned a 4,000-word article that is part-summary of the UNC scandal to date, and part-love opus to whistleblower Mary Willingham. If you have been following the UNC mess for any length of time, there is not a single new piece of information about the scandal itself. Barrett, who earlier compared the UNC scandal to racism, stretches credulity by attempting to make an equivalency between Willingham and the late UNC System President Bill Friday, whose efforts to reform college athletics were well-known, as well as throwing in a slavery reference for good measure.

What makes the Business Week article interesting is that Barrett and the magazine make no pretense about trying to shift the discussion of UNC's academic woes from football to basketball. The accompanying graphic, which became the cover photo for Business Week, is of a Carolina basketball jersey with the letter grade "F" in place of a number, and other supporting documentation also highlights basketball rather than football. Contrast this to the course that Nyang'oro has been charged with defrauding UNC over, which had an enrollment of 18 football players and one former football player. But as Brian and others on the interwebs have pointed out, no one cares about how players on an 8-4 or 7-5 UNC football team were kept eligible. The crown jewel has always been the connection to basketball, and Barrett and BW clearly went all in on that angle.

The third, and perhaps most interesting development of the past two weeks, has been the public blog comments of Bradley Bethel, who is the current learning specialist for UNC student-athletes. In other words, he now does what Mary Willingham used to do at UNC. Last week, he took aim at Willingham's claims that certain UNC student-athletes were, in effect, functionally illiterate by shredding her methodology and her representation of the students she cited in the January CNN article that unleashed this firestorm as representative of her experience with players. This week, he again took issue with Willingham's misrepresentation about student-athletes at UNC, but also highlighted an important piece of evidence that contradicts the narrative about the whole scandal: while UNC's academic counselors certainly knew the aberrant AFAM classes were less rigorous than others, there is no evidence that they knew the classes were potentially fraudulent, which would be key to potential NCAA involvement. He also points out the other inconvenient fact for ABCers hoping the NCAA would drop the hammer on UNC: while athletes made up a disproportionate number of enrollments in the aberrant classes (to use a Dan Kane-ism), the overall enrollment numbers in those sections were still 55% non-athletes. Bethel goes on to state that he shares Willingham's concerns about universities (and UNC in particular) admitting students who are unprepared for college work, but that he did not feel he could allow her hyperbolic claims, seemingly grounded in questionable research, to go unchallenged.

One might think Bethel would provide a solid counterpoint to the claims made by Willingham. He holds the same position she did, works with student-athletes in the same capacity, and uses the same assessment instruments she used. He would certainly represent how student-athletes are dealt with now at UNC, as opposed to when Wilingham was there. And he doesn't hold the school blameless; rather he seeks to defend the integrity of his program and the dignity of student-athletes. But Business Week's Barrett and CNN's Sara Ganim, who wrote the January article that started this steamroller, apparently haven't come calling. One person who did bother to talk to Bethel is the News and Observer's Dan Kane, who did write a piece about Bethel's defense of UNC. After that article was published, however, Bethel's tune about Kane and the N&O have changed. In a Wednesday update to his blog post from this week, Bethel notes that the print version of the article used a "more scandalous" headline than the online version, and a pull quote was used out of context in print. He goes on to say that while the story itself was fair, the paper's presentation in print seemed designed to promote a specific narrative and as a result, he would not be communicating with the N&O anymore.

Bethel is clearly right about one thing. The narrative has been set and regardless of Willingham's shortcomings or Nyang'oro's fraud (or lack thereof), writers will seek to drive web traffic and sell copies (and test the old newspaper axiom that headlines run on the front page while corrections and retractions run on page B-11). Still UNC has to own that it fell short in many areas and its reputation has been damaged and will likely take decades to recover, if ever. But that's not to say that the university shouldn't also make sure that what information is out there is accurate, which is ultimately Bethel's point.

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