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Analyzing the Martin Report

Both supporters and critics of UNC are likely to point to this report and say, "See, I told you so."


Former North Carolina Governor and Davidson college professor Jim Martin presented the findings of his inquiry into academic irregularities to the UNC Board of Trustees on Thursday. You can read Brian's recap of the 74-page report here.

The report was compiled with the assistance of Baker Tilly, a national independent review firm. The inquiry stretched back to 1994, which was the limit of what could be done electronically. The inquiry reviewed over 172,000 course sections and a potential 118,000 undergraduate students, resulting in over 4.6 million pieces of data. That data was then subjected to a series of reviews that identified potential "red flags" across a number of departments. The review panel also interviewed over 80 individuals and reviewed records of athletic academic support tutor logs that may have referenced anomalous classes. I could continue to bore you with statistics and details about how the review was conducted, but it was pretty thorough and extensive, especially given the brief time frame within which this all happened.

What all of that statistical mumbo-jumbo means boiled down into simple English is that, while anomalies sprung up here and there in various areas of the University (including a Naval Science course that came up earlier as an easy course to which athletes gravitated), the only place where unanswerable questions arose was under the African and African American Studies department, chaired by the infamous Julius Nyang'oro and facilitated by now-retired administrative assistant Deborah Crowder.

The report has been rightfully criticized as much for the questions not asked and people not interviewed, but the primary task of the Martin inquiry was, as indicated in the report itself.

  • Did anomalies exist in other academic subjects or departments outside of AFRI/AFAM?
  • If so, for what time period did anomalies exist?
  • What were the factors or environment that allowed the anomalies to occur and who was culpable? (Martin Report, p.2)

From that limited scope, the inquiry fulfilled its purpose. It did identify anomalies outside AFAM but those had explanations; they identified the AFAM irregularities back to 1997, and showed Nyang'oro and Crowder as the prime culprits.

Some critics are taking exception to Martin's assertion that this is not an athletic scandal but an academic one. While athletics is clearly intertwined in the Gordian knot that is this entire mess, the question remains, was this business of anomalous classes set up for the benefit of athletes, or were athletes simply the beneficiaries of the system as designed? There is simply no concrete evidence that has been offered to prove the first assertion, regardless of how fishy or coincidental the appearances. In fact, I think the biggest support of Martin's conclusion that this is an academic scandal is the deafening silence of the UNC faculty, both Thursday and Friday and throughout the entire affair. There are the usual platitudes about admitting unqualified students, but if the sense of the faculty was that this was a whitewash and academics was being scapegoated for athletics, professors would have marched on South Building already.

Nevertheless, the report did reveal a few nuggets of interest:

  • The percentage of enrollment of athletes in flagged courses was equivalent to those in non-anomalous courses. In other words, athletes were not enrolling in questionable courses any more than they were in regular courses. Again, makes it hard to prove this was set up to help athletes.
  • Both the Martin inquiry and a previous internal investigation revealed the anomalous courses came to a near-dead stop when Deborah Crowder retired in 2009. (Ed. note: a national sports site has tried to make a now disproven connection between the timing of the departure of men's basketball academic adviser Wayne Walden and the end of basketball enrollments in questionable AFAM courses. If the timing of Walden's departure is significant, then isn't the timing of Crowder's as well?
  • In addition to the Martin inquiry, there are 8 other reviews into this situation either completed or are in process, by both internal and external entities. One of these was done in association with the NCAA, and the Martin report lists the results of that as finding no evidence of students receiving grades without work, athletes receiving an advantage over non-athletes (p. 11-12). We at THB have long maintained that part of the reason for the NCAA's silence on the AFAM matter is that they have known everything all along, and this supports that notion.
  • The inquiry found a dozen or so instances where fraudulent or forged signatures were used for grade change forms. In looking at all the grade changes, both fraudulent or legit, there does not seem to be an unusual preponderance of athletes involved.
  • The majority of the AFAM/AFRI course sections identified as problematic by the Martin probe appears to have occurred between 2003 and 2007. This, of course, pokes holes in a number of popular stories and wild myths about the whole mess, including donations to charities and this somehow being attributable to Butch Davis.
  • Julius Nyang'oro had a number of side gigs, as an adjunct instructor for a Washington, DC think tank on Africa and a number of other consultancies. As a result, he was not around a lot and possibly delegated far more responsibility to Crowder for departmental oversight. He was also listed as the instructor of record for far more courses than the typical department chair at a large university.
  • The Martin inquiry hired a private investigator to dig into Nyang'oro, Crowder, her boyfriend, former UNC basketball player Warren Martin, and Carl Carey, Julius Peppers' former agent and someone who has tangentially been connected to this investigation. That revealed an odd connection between Crowder and former UNC basketball adviser Burgess McSwain, a staple of the Dean Smith era, who died in 2004. Four years later, upon the death of McSwain's father, Crowder received a bequest of $100,000 to care for his dogs after his death.
  • Athletic academic advisers knew of the easy classes but there was no evidence of a concerted effort to steer players to AFAM courses. In fact, the Martin report notes that many groups like fraternities and social media can direct students to easy courses, and that there were plenty of easy courses to be had outside of AFAM.

The biggest criticism of the Martin report is that it analyzed a lot of data but did not do a lot of inquiry (and as someone working on a dissertation, I can tell you that is a significant difference. Many have taken the report to task for not asking "Why?" and have skewered Martin's response of "we weren't directed to." But I think Martin does allude to what it might have been:

We believe we have detected the first example of a course approved and listed as a Lecture
Course which was in fact a single "term paper course." With no prior foreshadowing, it suddenly
occurred in fall 1997, a few months after the twin curricula of African Studies and Afro American
Studies became a new, free standing department. Professor Julius Nyang’oro had become chair
of the African Studies and Afro American Studies curricula in 1992...

...the beginning of this academic impropriety appeared for the first time in the fall semester 1997, immediately after the AFRI/AFAM curricula received departmental status. Its incidence came and went for a few years, almost absentmindedly . . . or perhaps testing the waters.

Notice that these "term-paper courses" rapidly expanded in the fall of 2003. Enrollments in these anomalous lecture sections far exceeded enrollments in Independent Studies. For some unknown reason, this practice subsided by the summer of 2007, the beginning of the period reviewed by Hartlyn-Andrews. They found, as did we, that it almost ceased after the summer of 2009, when Department Administrator Deborah Crowder retired. Thereafter, only an occasional term paper course appeared under sponsorship of Professor Nyang’oro.

In other words, AFAM/AFRI became a full-fledged department in 1997 after being offered as only curricula within the College of Arts and Sciences previously. Departmental legitimacy and status are sometimes defined by course offerings and enrollment. Add to that a University with a history of racial strife (my own time at UNC was characterized by the struggle for a Black Cultural Center), political correctness, and a concept of academic freedom pretty much allowed departments to do what they want and teach how they want because no professor wants to be told what or how to teach.

So what does this mean moving forward? This report is pretty much what anyone paying attention thought it would be: a confirmation of the rogue department theory. And for just a moment, you have to allow for the idea that it is really all it boiled down to. It makes it very easy to cast blame on Nyang'oro and Crowder, who are long-gone and have no incentive to talk (although forgery and fraud as it relates to the grade reports might help those with subpoena power compel testimony). Given that there is really nothing new and the NCAA has been in the loop all along, it is unlikely this will result in any additional NCAA sanctions, especially since there is no demonstrated benefit for student-athletes and the NCAA really doesn't get into how member institutions teach because the member institutions won't let them. That's why the NCAA muscles high schools into initial eligibility hoops but says very little about what happens when athletes get into school. Or, in other words, why the NCAA is more interested in Rodney Purvis' high school transcript than Julius Peppers' UNC transcript.

Life will likely resume with some semblance of normalcy; UNC will talk of moving on, ABCers will counter that Carolina got away with it...again. Alums like me will be saddened but will sincerely hope the entire mess has been cleaned up. There are many loose ends to be wrapped up so this isn't nearly over, but the white-hot lights will subside. UNC basketball is struggling so expect that to be front-page in the near future and push the Martin report to the back burner. Soon the UNC chancellor search will take center stage and this controversy will be a huge sideshow in that, but once Holden Thorp leaves, the barn will be mostly clean of any and everyone associated with the entire mess. Life will go on, just as it did after the supposed Mayan apocalypse.