HILLSBOROUGH – A so-far silent, bespectacled former professor at the heart of the scandal involving academics and athletics at America’s oldest public university is due in court on charges he cheated taxpayers by failing to lecture his summer-school students.
Julius Nyang’oro, 59, a former chairman of African studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is due in Orange County court next week on a felony fraud charge. Nyang’oro is accused of receiving $12,000 from the university for teaching a lecture course in 2011 that never met – money the school recouped from his paycheck when he retired in 2012.
A 2012 inquiry conducted by former Gov. Jim Martin found problems in more than 200 African studies courses dating to the mid-1990s, including forged signatures on grade rolls, unauthorized grade changes and poor oversight.
Michael O. West, who was on the UNC faculty with Nyang’oro for six years until 2002 and still considers him a friend, said he has often wondered why his former colleague has said nothing in his defense for years. Nyang’oro could face up to 10 months in prison if convicted.
“He is a man of patience and forbearance. Long-suffering is his strong suit,” said West, now a professor at Binghamton University in New York.
Nyang’oro appeared in court on the charge in December. His attorney, Bill Thomas, said nearly seven months ago that Nyang’oro would plead innocent to the charge. Neither Thomas nor another defense lawyer, James Williams, returned messages seeking comment this week.
Since Nyang’oro appeared in court in December, university leaders hired former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein to get to the bottom of how and why academic fraud happened. The former U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., and homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush is heading the latest of eight internal and outsider reviews of the academic irregularities in what was once known as the African and Afro-American Studies department.
The problems included lecture classes with significant athlete enrollments that didn’t meet and were instead treated as independent studies requiring only a research paper. A university review reported two years ago that academic advisers referred athletes to enroll in those classes.
Other recent developments coloring the connections between academics and athletics at the Chapel Hill campus that began as an offshoot to an NCAA investigation of the football program in 2010 include:
– A key member of the men’s basketball team that won the 2005 national championship said this month he managed to stay academically eligible thanks to African studies courses he didn’t attend, even making the campus dean’s list with As in four of the classes. Rashad McCants said tutors wrote papers for him and other players in the no-show classes and he believes coach Roy Williams knew what he and other players were doing. Williams and other players from the 2005 title team denied any involvement in academic wrongdoing. McCants also said tutors provided him with test answers in some African studies classes.
– UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham told CNN in January that she conducted research into the reading skills of 183 football and basketball players from 2004-12. She said the majority could read at no better than middle-school levels and classes in African studies were designed to keep athletes academically eligible. Three professors from Georgia State, Minnesota and Virginia hired by the university said in April their review of Willingham’s data found it didn’t support her claim. One of the experts estimated about 7 percent of athletes from Willingham’s research read at fourth- to eighth-grade levels. Willingham left her university job last month.
– Campus academic and athletics officials are reshaping how the school prepares athletes with everything from academic support to following NCAA rules. The review led by the school’s chief academic officer, James W. Dean Jr., and athletics director Bubba Cunningham seeks to learn from the well-documented mistakes. Cunningham said the goal was preventing a repeat of problems he blamed on breakdowns of supervision.
“Were we paying attention to classes we were offering? Were we paying attention to the number of students attracted to certain classes and why would they be attracted to those classes? We just weren’t paying attention as closely as we should’ve been,” he said last month.