CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The University of North Carolina has tried for years to remove the stain of an academic scandal that began with an office administrator setting up sham classes to help struggling students — only to see things get worse.
An independent investigator hired by the school outlined how academic fraud ran unchecked for 18 years, rooted in the conduct of a "do-gooder" who handed out artificially high grades in courses that typically required one research paper with no class time in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies department.
Now the school faces renewed questions from its accreditation agency about the university and awaits the NCAA's next move before it can try to repair its damaged reputation. The lack of institutional oversight could impact the NCAA probe and ultimately lead to possible wins and championships being vacated.
"It is hard for me to imagine how any person of character could've said, 'No, sorry, don't want to hear it,'" Chancellor Carol Folt said. "So we didn't have a choice. This is the right thing to do."
Several reports indicate the scandal began with retired administrator Deborah Crowder and former chairman Julius Nyang'oro, who created problems with things like lecture classes that didn't meet and operated as independent study.
Some details in former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein's report mirrored an internal probe and one conducted by former Gov. Jim Martin, all saying blame fell to Crowder and Nyang'oro.
The "shadow curriculum" affected more than 3,100 students, roughly half being athletes. It started with Crowder, who provided paper topics and typically issued high grades regardless of the work from 1993 until her 2009 retirement.
Nyang'oro went on to offer six similar classes over the next two years. His hands-off management style empowered Crowder — whom he trusted with tasks such as scheduling courses and approving enrollments while also allowing her to sign his name to department paperwork — and enabled the problem to flourish.
In a statement, Crowder's attorney said she wouldn't speak publicly about the report and noted she fully cooperated with Wainstein.
"Throughout the course of the investigation, she has done just that, no matter how difficult the answers were," Christopher Browning said. "Now that the Wainstein Report has been released and the investigation closed, Ms. Crowder is looking forward to moving on with her life."
There was some hope that Wainstein's report — released last week — would bring closure to the scandal, but it ultimately exposed the magnitude of the issue.
Wainstein, who noted Crowder was known around campus as a "do-gooder," outlined how she felt "left adrift" as a UNC student who needed more support. That motivated her to create a boost for struggling students such as sexual-assault victims and students with mental-health issues, as well as athletes due to her passion for UNC sports teams — particularly men's basketball.
Several of the paper assignments, included among documents released with Wainstein's report, covered topics including American drug policy, racial disparities in medical care and African influence on the culture of the Bahamas.
Some offered detailed instructions on the required number of citations, primary resources to use and questions to address in a 20-page paper — shorter if during a compressed summer schedule — due at the end of the term. Others offered little more than an overall topic. And some courses allowed students to write two shorter papers to turn in midway through and at the end of the term.
The problem worsened as word of mouth spread across campus.
Counselors working with athletes enrolled them in "paper classes" for "GPA boosters." Another referred a student to Crowder when he was at risk of losing his prestigious academic scholarship. Some fraternity members looking for easy classes took so many that they inadvertently earned AFAM minors.
Former football player Deunta Williams took some of the classes, viewing them then as easy electives that wouldn't take time away from football.
"I feel disappointed, I feel ambushed almost — those would be some of the feelings that I would have," said Williams, who played from 2007-10 and was interviewed in Wainstein's probe. "Simply put, and this is how I view regret, if I had the chance to do the same thing over again, would I do it or would I not? And if you can say, 'No, I wouldn't do it the same way,' then there's a level of regret.
"Not that you're saying that 'My life is horrible now' or anything like that. It's just saying I would do this differently."
The scandal's wide reach concerns junior Mary Britt Nelson, a junior dental hygiene major from Holden Beach.
Friends "were talking about when we graduate and when we go to job interviews and people see our degree from Carolina, all this is going to come to their mind," she said. "We don't want that to make our degree of less importance when it wasn't something we were involved with."
The end to the bogus classes came as questions arose in 2011, most notably after a football player went to court seeking reinstatement after the NCAA ruled him permanently ineligible for academic violations connected to a 2009 paper listing Nyang'oro as instructor. With the paper in the court record, fans of rival North Carolina State University went online pointing out plagiarized material.
The school has been trying to dig out ever since.