CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It's a sunny morning on the campus of the University of North Carolina. But at the Ernie Williamson Center, which houses the Tar Heels athletics department, a cloud won't go away -- even though it doesn't look like the NCAA is coming back.
Over the past few months, first-year athletic director Bubba Cunningham has met with admissions officers to discuss what it takes for athletes to succeed academically at UNC. He has restructured his department and hired outside the university to bring some new ideas in. He has studied majors and summer school classes, reached out to faculty and tried to start mending the rift between athletics and academics.
But in the wake of major NCAA sanctions levied against UNC's football program, followed by a separate academic scandal involving the African and Afro-American Studies Department, a storm still lingers.
"We had some major violations, and I thought when we got the final report [from the NCAA] in March, that would be the end of it,'' said Cunningham, who was hired last October. "But the internal dialogue about how we're going to balance academics and athletics has lasted a lot longer publicly than I thought."
And for good reason.
Five months ago, the NCAA imposed a one-year postseason ban and scholarship reductions on UNC's football program as penalty for improper benefits and academic misconduct involving a tutor. That was on top of the school's self-imposed penalties, which included 16 vacated wins, probation, the firing of football coach Butch Davis and the resignation of AD Dick Baddour after a 2010 season that saw 14 players miss at least one game.
But as an offshoot of the NCAA investigation, a UNC internal probe found that 54 AFAM classes were either "aberrant" or "irregularly" taught from summer 2007 to summer 2011. That included unauthorized grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time.
UNC, which issued its report on the AFAM probe in May, says no student received a grade without submitting written work. But more than 50 percent of the students in those suspect classes were athletes. As first reported by the (Raleigh) News & Observer, one class last summer had an enrollment of 19 -- 18 football players and one former football player.
Then late last month, a faculty committee looking into the scandal issued a new report stating that academic counselors assigned to the athletes might have pushed them into those classes.
"Although we may never know for certain, it was our impression from multiple interviews that a department staff member managed to use the system to help players by directing them to enroll in classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department that turned out to be aberrant or irregularly taught,'' the report said. "We were told that athletes claimed they had been sent to Julius Nyang'oro [who taught 45 of the suspect classes] by the ASPSA (Academic Support Program for Student Athletes). This raises the question of whether they could also have been sent to other departments by [academic support] counselors."
Where's the NCAA?
Cunningham knows the situation looks bad because it is bad, but insists that it's an institutional, and not an NCAA, concern.
The school has confirmed that every student (and student-athlete) who got a grade in the suspect classes turned in assigned work, he said. The classes were open to all students, he added.
The faculty report stated that "there was a clear finding that only the former [AFAM] chair Julius Nyang'oro and Deborah Crowder, a former staff member, had been involved in problems with the courses in the department." (Nyang'oro, was forced to retire, while Crowder retired in 2009.)
And the NCAA was informed about the AFAM matter before it ruled back in March, Cunningham said -- even about that class filled with football players.
"We've looked at it very closely, we've tried to keep in contact with the NCAA and keep them advised of everything, as you generally do,'' he said. "Since it's both students and student-athletes, we feel pretty confident that it's not an [NCAA] issue."
The NCAA's rule on academic fraud falls under "Unethical Conduct" and states, fairly vaguely:
"(b) Knowing involvement in arranging for fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts for a prospective or enrolled student athlete."
According to an email from NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn, academic fraud is an NCAA matter:
"Anytime a[n athletics] staff member knowingly is involved in arranging fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts for a prospective or enrolled student-athlete, regardless of whether the institutional staff member acted alone or in concert with the prospective or enrolled student-athlete.
"When a student-athlete, acting alone or in concert with others, knowingly becomes involved in arranging fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts, regardless of whether such conduct results in an erroneous declaration of eligibility."
If a student-athlete commits an academic offense (such as cheating on a test or plagiarism on a term paper) with no involvement of an institutional staff member, she added, "it would not fall under NCAA rules unless the academic offense results in an erroneous declaration of eligibility and the student-athlete subsequently competes for the institution."
UNC said there are no eligibility issues related to AFAM.
The NCAA typically doesn't comment on why it investigates (or doesn't investigate) specific cases. But the key to the rule when it comes to UNC, according to people with knowledge of NCAA enforcement, is who was involved in making the classes "suspect." If a professor is not teaching or grading a course properly, the NCAA deems that a university issue. If a professor is not teaching or grading appropriately because a coach or member of the athletics department told him or her not to, then the NCAA becomes involved.
Thus, although it's eyebrow-raising, the "clustering" of a high number of athletes in the same course or major doesn't on its face break NCAA rules. For example, the NCAA showed little interest when the Ann Arbor News reported in 2008 that 85 percent of 294 independent studies courses a Michigan psychology professor taught over a three-year period was comprised of athletes.
We've looked at it very closely, we've tried to keep in contact with the NCAA and keep them advised of everything, as you generally do. Since it's both students and student-athletes, we feel pretty confident that it's not an [NCAA] issue.
--North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham
And the NCAA found Auburn University committed only minor violations after the New York Times reported that 18 members of the undefeated 2004 football team took 97 hours of independent study-type courses from the same sociology professor during their careers. Non-athletes took those classes, as well.
If academic counselors steer athletes to easier classes, it breaks an ethical code, explained Gerald Gurney, a former president of the National Association for Academic Advisors for Athletics who was an associate athletic director for academics at Oklahoma, where he is now a professor of adult and higher education. But that in itself doesn't break NCAA rules.
"What you have at North Carolina is a breakdown of the responsibility of faculty to ensure the academic integrity of their programs, of their courses, and the rigor of their courses,'' said Gurney, who left academic support to become a full-time professor in 2011. "That is largely the faculty's responsibility.
"At the same time, I will say that there are significant numbers of faculty at every institution who are friendly to athletes. I have 31 years of experience when I say that. Every institution has 'Jock Docs.' And every institution has majors that are less rigorous than others and, unfortunately, athletes tend to follow the path of least resistance. And so do academic counselors at times."
Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC who has been outspoken about his concern for academic integrity at the university, said in an email there's no way the NCAA wants to look too closely at a situation like the one in Chapel Hill because "it exemplifies too vividly the hypocrisy on which big-time college sports is based."
What Smith would like UNC to investigate, now, is how far back athletics counselors may have been steering athletes to questionable classes, and whether other departments might also be implicated.
"The University, I think, would like to pretend that all problems were introduced in the Butch Davis era," said Smith in an email. "If there's evidence that some of these strange courses were being scheduled and taken by athletes 10 or 15 years ago -- and there have been some tantalizing hints in that direction –that would suggest a much more pervasive and ingrained culture of permissiveness and corner cutting, one that will take a great deal of work to uproot."
The digging hasn't stopped.
A four-member UNC Board of Governors panel is reviewing UNC's original investigation into the AFAM department. The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into whether any computer fraud, forgery or conspiracy to commit those crimes in the AFAM department took place. June's faculty report called for an independent commission of outside experts in higher education to take a forward-looking review of athletics and academics at the university.
Meanwhile, basketball coach Roy Williams can't shake media questions about his teams' involvement in the questionable AFAM courses. Although the majority of the athletes in the suspect sessions were football players, 3 percent were men's basketball players. Predating the four years covered in the internal investigation, seven of the players on UNC's 2005 national title team graduated with a degree in AFAM, the Indianapolis Star reported in 2010. (That includes forward Sean May, who told the newspaper in that same article that after double-majoring in communications and AFAM, he dropped the communications part of his degree after going pro early because it would be easier to graduate sooner.)
The number of AFAM majors on Williams' teams has decreased significantly since his first title. But the suspicions, especially among rival fans, still cling.
"I'm telling you, it is not an issue for basketball. It is a university issue; it is an academic issue,'' Williams told ESPN.com recently when asked about the scandal again. "Nobody has come to me and said, 'We have problems with basketball.' In my opinion, we don't, and I'm not going to use my time trying to find something that's probably not there."
Asked whether the NCAA took a specific look at the basketball program in regards to the questionable AFAM classes, Cunningham said he couldn't speak to what the investigators were specifically studying.
"But my impression with the NCAA has always been [that] they are not sport-specific when it comes to a class,'' Cunningham said. "It's whether or not the issues were something that just involved student-athletes, or student-athletes and other students, and [whether the classes] were generally available to other students. The NCAA doesn't look sport-specific on issues like that."
Williams, for one, would like to look forward, not back. He said he's been "disturbed" and "discouraged" by what has occurred, "but at some point it's got to come to an end, and people have got to let us go on. … Mistakes have been made, [but] we're making great steps to improve everything."
That includes stricter oversight of independent studies courses; instructors now will teach no more than two independent studies students per summer session or semester. Stronger procedures have also been put into place for course syllabi, exams and grading, UNC said. Meanwhile, the faculty report suggests there should be a better system for signing off on course forms; there should be more monitoring of student records and more oversight in university departments; and student-athletes should be advised by the academic side of the university.
Still, even with the new and potential changes, Cunningham understands it might take more time for the clouds of concern to dissipate.
"When problems occur, mistrust rises, so we have to go back and reestablish some trust,'' he said. "I think we have outstanding students who want to be successful, and we have faculty who want students to be successful. There are going to be a small minority who think you can't compete at the highest level in academics and athletics. I don't believe that; I think you can. And we've done it over time.
"It takes a commitment to do things well, and we have that."