UNC Academic Fraud Merits Criminal Probe

Sen. Thom Goolsby

The UNC academic fraud scandal is like a pesky staph infection that just won’t go away for university officials — nor should it. As reporters at the Raleigh News and Observer continue to dig, they uncover more and more dirty little secrets. The latest problems swirl around a pus pocket called the Academic Support Program.

For many years some football and basketball players, known to the University as “Special Admits,” were assisted by the Academic Support Program and allowed to take no-show classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. Billed as lecture classes, the courses were offered by none other than the chairman of the department. The classes never met — leading one to wonder why the courses were scheduled at all.

Mary Willingham, a reading specialist at UNC, worked in the Academic Support Program.  She told reporters she met numerous athletes who had never even read a book, nor did they know what a paragraph was. Willingham reported numerous instances of academic fraud, but no administrator wanted to hear from her.  Why would they?

These student-athletes (the term “student” is used lightly here) played in the all-important category of revenue-producing sports. Such individuals are precious commodities at any major university because college sports programs bring in billions of dollars every year to the schools that maintain them. The money comes from many different places, including trademarks, endorsements, media revenues, postseason games and big money from alumni donors.

It’s the gladiators who bring crowds to the arena and it should surprise no one that schools will do whatever it takes to field the best possible team. What is shameful is the continued smokescreen produced by the UNC administration around this scandal. Academic fraud has prompted no less than four investigations at UNC. One is currently being led by former Governor Jim Martin. So far the governing body of college sports, the NCAA, has not sullied its hands in the most recent fraud revelations.

Governor Martin’s investigation should provide clear answers and solutions for dealing with the scandal. So far, administrators are using the former Republican governor’s inquiry as a dodge to avoid any comments. When asked about the problem, Chancellor Holden Thorp refused to talk, stating that everyone was focused on the Governor’s investigation and that’s all he had to say.

Further, university officials repeatedly claim that FERPA does not allow them to discuss developments in the academic fraud case or release records to the public. FERPA is an acronym for the federal “Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.” The University claims this law does not allow them to release records or face the loss of federal funding.  A few documents were disclosed, providing strong evidence as to the extent of the scandal.

It is past time for a criminal investigation into these fraudulent activities. For far too long, academic scandals have been treated with the soft glove approach.  The local district attorney’s office should begin an immediate criminal probe. If the DA does not wish to handle this matter, he should request that the Attorney General appoint a Special Prosecutor to handle this case.

The reputation of the state’s flagship university is at stake and someone must take this matter seriously. Any prosecutor worth his salt would turn detectives loose on staff and administrators involved in the fraud and subsequent cover-up. If necessary, the General Assembly could consider legislation to make prosecuting this type of academic fraud easier.

Additionally, the UNC Board of Governors should seriously consider asking for the resignations of current UNC Trustees who failed to safeguard academic integrity. They have shown little willingness to get to the truth of this scandal and cure the infection. When UNC comes to the General Assembly for more funding, university officials should expect that legislators charged with representing the taxpayers will demand answers.

Thom Goolsby is a practicing attorney, law professor and was recently reelected to the N.C. Senate.  He serves on the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee.