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John Drescher Wants You to Know The N&O is Still on the Case

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Ronald Martinez

The News and Observer's executive editor John Drescher stepped up to the proverbial plate to justify his paper's continued coverage of UNC's academic problems. Drescher offered a brief history lesson as to how we reached this point and notes the results.

Eventually, a university-backed investigation reported that Nyang’oro was in charge of 200 lecture-style classes that were confirmed or suspected of having never met and required only a paper at the end. Of the students in these classes, 45 percent were athletes, well above their proportion of all students. The university acknowledged that the academic support staff had steered athletes to the classes. Nyang’oro retired, and Chancellor Holden Thorp, weakened and worn down, resigned.

Some readers, understandably, are fatigued by this story. Why, two years later, are we still writing about this?

It stands to reason Drescher and the News and Observer are feeling enough heat from their readers to take the time and space to justify the ongoing investigation. It also speaks volumes to the actual substance of what the paper has produced that such an open plea would even be necessary. If the N&O was consistently uncovering new information instead of recycling old talking points there would be no need to make a public case for the coverage to continue. The sheer momentum of the investigation would be more than enough to justify pushing the story. The proof, as they say, would be in the pudding.

Interestingly enough, Drescher offers some solid reasons why the N&O should be less focused on this issue. The foremost of those is the fact many of the players in the original scandal have long since left UNC. The administrative assistant connected to the classes, Deborah Crowder, left in 2009. The department head, Julius Nyang'oro, who was behind he AFAM paper classes was ousted in 2011. Chancellor Holden Thorp left to take a post at a smaller college. Even the athletic department has cleaned house and brought in numerous new staff members at key academic support and compliance positions. In addition to getting rid of the key players, UNC has introduced reforms to the system in an effort to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. In most cases that is more than enough to address the issues, satisfy the public demands for accountability and move on to other things.

Not according to Drescher because he has questions and those questions must be answered or else we can never have closure or something.

Because three basic questions remain:

1. How did the no-show classes get started?

2. Who knew about the no-show classes?

3. What did they do when they knew about the classes?

For much of the last two years, UNC showed little interest in answering these questions. The most extensive investigation into the wrongdoing was led by former Gov. Jim Martin. He and auditors did well in documenting the academic fraud back to 1997. But they barely attempted to answer the questions of how the classes got started and who knew.

Now UNC is attempting to answer these questions. It has hired Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor, to get to the bottom of the academic fraud.

Let's be clear about something. While it seems the News and Observer has dragged their coverage of this out beyond the sell-by date that doesn't mean the paper shouldn't continue to ask questions. In fact the questions above are perfectly fair ones. The problem with the N&O is the focus on getting a particular set of answers to those questions, answers that look something like this:

1. To keep athletes eligible.

2. Athletic department officials

3. They did nothing. See #1

Anything short of these answers to Drescher's questions will result in the paper calling said responses a whitewash or just another example of the university being unwilling to truly address the issue.

The other problem with these questions is does answering them really change the math for what UNC has done and is going to do in instituting reform? According to Drescher, UNC cannot reform without first understanding the real motivations behind the AFAM classes.

UNC has put reforms in place, including more oversight of professors’ teaching assignments and instructions for what should be included in a course syllabus.

But until UNC knows how the fraud got started and who knew, it can’t be confident it can prevent a recurrence. Chancellor Carol Folt knows that, and that’s why she and UNC system President Tom Ross hired Wainstein.

To earn the confidence of the public, UNC needs to get to the bottom of what went wrong; tell the public what it found; and move to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

That was true when the academic scandal was uncovered in 2012; it’s still true today. No amount of obfuscation and foot-dragging changes that.

UNC tried to skip the first step and move to reform. It appears finally to be making a serious effort to get to the bottom of the fraud. We will stay on the story and will report on Wainstein’s findings and the aftermath.

This sounds good but there is a problem with this logic. Instituting reform and knowing why something happened are not dependent on each other. UNC can, in fact, put reforms in place to address what they have found went wrong. Drescher says UNC can't truly do that without knowing the root cause but what he fails to acknowledge is the N&O's interest in the real "why" is centered entirely on the athletic angle. Drescher talks about really getting to the bottom of how these classes could have operated for so long without anyone noticing yet in the thousands of words I've seen the N&O publish on this topic, I have yet to see any effort to explore angles other than the potential connection to athletics. Every single article, including this one, makes mention of athletic participation in the suspect AFAM classes. Never mind the 55% of enrollments were non-athletes, they clearly don't matter.

So when Drescher waxes poetic about laying all things bare, the reality is the N&O's only interest is proving a connection to athletics. If the N&O wanted to understand the complete picture they would ask about other possible explanations that didn't include the words "athlete eligibility." The N&O is busy trying to prove this was a byproduct of an athletic department "run amok" with a corruption so vile it has destroyed the reputation of a fine university. However there is little to no curiosity in exploring whether Nyang'oro operating without impunity was an administrative failure or the nature of the tenure system that protects professors or rooted in the autonomy enjoyed by academic departments, etc, etc, etc.

After three years of attempting to shake loose evidence that the athletic department somehow had a hand in the creation of these classes and not finding any one would think the N&O would be eager to take a different tact. After all, the list of questions the N&O could be asking about these classes is long and would likely yield some interesting results. Too bad the News and Observer is not interested in asking them.