UNC scandal holds lessons for UT investigation

THE LEADERS: University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, left, and Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

The University of North Carolina has uncovered a massive academic scandal stretching back two decades and involving more than 3,000 students, half of them athletes in the school’s premier sports programs.

However, UNC didn’t uncover the scandal the first time it looked. The new report, which has generated nationwide headlines and led to the discipline or firing of nine employees, is the 11th that’s been conducted into a “shadow curriculum” at the African and Afro-American Studies department, which allowed students to inflate their grades — or maintain eligibility — by taking phony classes that never met and required almost no work.

The story of why it took 11 reports for UNC to get to the bottom of its scandal holds some lessons for the University of Texas, where officials who were unsatisfied with short reports on questionable admissions and off-the-books compensation practices have faced scorn, censure and even criminal charges.

UT hasn’t conducted anything like 11 investigations, of course. Two years ago, a lawyer for the UT System named Barry Burgdorf produced a report on secret “forgivable” loans at UT’s law school, which began by denying the loans were secret. Burgdorf was pressed to resign, and UT’s board of trustees voted in March 2013 to conduct a new investigation. That investigation has been stalled by Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Burgdorf later said his report was just a “review.” “It was not a forensic audit,” he told a legislative committee. “I am not an auditor.”

At the time the board approved a new investigation, lawmakers who wanted to protect their friend, UT President Bill Powers, denounced it as a waste of money. It was “auditing audits of audits,” state Rep. Dan Branch said.

State Rep. Jim Pitts called it a “witch hunt,” and one prominent news outlet has described the controversy that way ever since.

In a related matter, the chancellor of the university system conducted a preliminary investigation into questionable admissions practices earlier this year, and found evidence of favoritism, which led to a more thorough investigation by Kroll Associates, under way since August.

The speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus, who has written some of the favor-seeking letters at issue in the controversy, recently questioned the need for the Kroll investigation.

“How many investigations do you need?” he asked during a public appearance last month. “What are you looking for? Is there transparency in this latest one? I don’t know. I can understand the frustrations of the (university board) members that wanted to have a look, but I don’t endorse that approach or think that that necessarily is the right way to do it. I also don’t think that another investigation or another investigation after that is necessary.”

UNC’s experience demonstrates just how difficult it can be for university administrators to get answers. It also shows how easy it is to believe absence of evidence is evidence of absence, or to set a restricted scope in advance by underestimating the extent of the problem.

The UNC scandal started in August 2011, with media reports about a football player who’d submitted a plagiarized paper, and another who managed a B+ on a high-level summer course before he’d even started his freshman year.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and school officials launched an investigation into no-show classes in the AFAM department, but closed it after two months, after finding that nonathletes took the classes, too.

Then there was an investigation by two deans, who found nine “aberrant” courses and a few other “irregular” courses. It was easy for school officials to think they just had a minor problem. Another dean reviewed the record and offered guidelines, not unlike the “best practices” UT seeks to implement.

The school president and chancellor referred the findings to the state for criminal investigation, which proved crucial. (In the UT case, on the other hand, the only person who’s been referred for criminal investigation is the regent who first pushed for investigation.) The criminal investigation produced a felony charge against the chair of the AFAM department, which was later dropped in exchange for his cooperation with the final, 11th report into the affair.

After the criminal investigation, there was an investigation by a faculty committee, which was concerned about standards being lowered for athletes.

Then a former governor led a five-month, pro bono investigation. He found more widespread problems: 464 students enrolled in 39 classes “in which the instructor of record denied teaching the course section and signing the grade roll, or the chair stated that the course section had not been taught.” His investigation involved “a data-driven analysis of all 172,580 course sections offered by UNC between fall 1994 and fall 2012, filtering and screening this data for red flags…”

Even with such an extensive analysis, that investigation found fewer than a sixth of the 3,100 students included in the 11th report’s tally.

Then there was a study on how those guidelines had been implemented (high marks), and another by an accrediting body (no sanctions), and a review by the Board of Governors, which declared — wrongly, according to the new report — that athlete advisers hadn’t colluded to sign players up for phony classes. In tones familiar to anybody who’s followed the UT case, the board “concluded that all necessary investigations and analyses of the past academic misconduct have been completed (and) that it is now time for the University of North Carolina to move ahead, to commit to the prompt implementation of effective policies and practices throughout the system, and to remain vigilant and accountable for the stewardship of the academic enterprise throughout the University of North Carolina.”

Only it wasn’t. There were two more big investigations to come: the NCAA reopened its investigation, and then the 11th, known as the Wainstein report, after the former Justice Department official who conducted it.

Kenneth Wainstein concluded that university officials had not tried to cover up the wrongdoing. “The best evidence of the administration’s intentions has been the series of investigative efforts they commissioned,” he wrote. “We found no evidence that the higher levels of the University tried in any way to obscure the facts or the magnitude of this situation. To the extent there were times of delay or equivocation in their response to this controversy, we largely attribute that to insufficient appreciation of the scale of the problem, an understandable lack of experience with this sort of institutional crisis and some lingering disbelief that such misconduct could have occurred at Chapel Hill.”

The same could be said of UT, Longhorns being just as devoted as Tar Heels. Although Powers’ defenders have been forced to admit shockingly low scores on the Law School Admissions Test are a problem, few are willing to publicly entertain the possibility the problem extends beyond the cases brought to light by Watchdog.org.

The Wainstein report also offers two tips about access and scope that could prove relevant to UT. The Wainstein report states that “(i)mmediately upon our engagement, we executed a letter agreement with the University that permitted us access to information protected by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Under this agreement, we received unfettered access to protected student information, including transcripts and other academic records, with the understanding that we would not further disseminate such information, including in this report.”

It’s unclear whether Kroll Associates has the same access. A letter outlining the scope of their investigation says investigators “may have access to student information,” but “no information that identifies a student will be collected.”

Another reason the Wainstein investigators succeeded where others fell short was the others had to finish their “work in a time-frame that did not permit the comprehensive email review that is necessary to dig out the facts in this type of investigation. As Chancellor Carol Folt recognized when she ordered supplemental email review after the issuance of the Martin Report, the University now appreciates the importance of a thorough email review.”

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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