CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (CNN) — What happens to the 3,100 students who enrolled in fake classes and now have a degree stamped with the seal of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — an institution consistently ranked among the nation’s top public schools?
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is currently reviewing a scathing report, prepared by former federal prosecutor Ken Wainstein, which showed thousands of UNC students took fraudulent classes, some of them multiple times.
But Belle Wheelan, the president of the association — which is charged with accrediting degree-granting higher education institutions in the South, from Virginia to Texas — told CNN that her group can’t take away degrees.
“UNC has to verify every degree they give all the time. We ask them to make sure all courses really are legitimate,” Wheelan said. “All we can do … is put them on sanction for lack of integrity.
“As far as taking those degrees back, there’s nothing we can do.”
UNC officials told CNN say they are still deciding how to try to remedy the fact that so many students graduated with credits from the so-called “paper classes” on their transcripts.
Some students earned many credits taking multiple “GPA booster” classes. One student was enrolled in 19 different paper classes, Wainstein said.
“We’re considering options on these matters and are working closely with SACS to evaluate possible courses of action,” said spokesman Rick White.
Expert: ‘Nearly impossible’ to take away degrees
Gerald Gurney, president of the Drake Group for academic integrity in collegiate sport and the former president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics, called the UNC fraud the largest and most nefarious academic scandal in the history of the NCAA.
“The depth and breadth of the scheme — involving counselors, coaches, academic administrators, faculty, athletic administrators, etc. — eclipses any previous case,” Gurney said.
But, while Gurney believes the NCAA should punish the university, he does not think that the students could lose the legitimacy of their degrees.
“Lifting diplomas from students who were advised to take these classes is nearly impossible,” he said.
The last time SACS investigated the paper classes — when UNC insisted they existed on a much smaller scale — the association made UNC offer new classes to students who had been enrolled in the fake ones. But the enrollment in the remedy class was optional, Wheelan said.
UNC told CNN that 11 students opted to retake a class.
The suspect classes were started by a professor’s assistant in the African-American studies program (AFAM) who had sympathy for those at the school who were “not the best and the brightest.” That assistant, Debbie Crowder, and professor Julius Nyang’oro then worked with several advisers in athletics to help student-athletes on the brink of eligibility keep their GPAs up, according to the report.
One former football player, Mike McAdoo, told CNN earlier this year that his adviser told him to major in AFAM, and then put him in several paper classes, even though he had interest in majoring in something else.
From emails that were attached to Wainstein’s report, it’s clear that some athletes were placed in these classes because they were struggling.
One email, written by former women’s basketball academics adviser Jan Boxill, suggests an athlete is only enrolled in “two real courses.”
Other emails show how counselors were calculated in adding, then dropping, and shifting athletes from class to class trying to keep them eligible to play.
Report: Nearly half of 3,100 students were athletes
This all comes as no surprise to whistleblower Mary Willingham.
She sounded the alarm on paper classes and was a lone voice against the university when it insisted that the whole scheme fell to the shoulders of Nyang’oro and Crowder alone.
Willingham told CNN that many people were involved and that the paper classes were used as a crutch for underprepared athletes. She said that in January — a month before the Wainstein and his firm, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, was hired by UNC to do another investigation into what happened over the last two decades.
What Wainstein found was significantly bigger than what UNC had admitted to for the last five years.
Nearly half of the 3,100 students were athletes.
“A good number of these student-athletes were “steered” to the AFAM paper classes by certain academic counselors in ASPSA,” Wainstein’s report says. His report says paper classes served as “GPA boosters” for athletes who were on the brink of eligibility.
Willingham says it’s because they were admitted to UNC just to play — and they couldn’t keep up in the classroom the way they could keep up on the field, she says.
Willingham has been attacked for saying that. One UNC official even publicly said she was lying.
Now, the 131-page report and hundreds of supplemental documents appear to back her up.
Willingham sat at her kitchen table this week, watching the University of North Carolina admit to nearly two decades of academic fraud. All she could think about were the athletes she tutored who she says were terribly unprepared for real classes at UNC.
Many, she says, could barely read.
“I think about where they are, you know, what are they doing,” she said, sitting at that same table the next day. “It’s hard to find a lot of those guys. And so I was wondering if they were paying any attention to this and if it had any meaning for them.”
Federal education privacy rules forbid the university from publicly identifying the students involved in the paper classes.
Roy Williams: ‘We tried to do the right thing’
UNC said the Wainstein report came to a different conclusion than previous investigations because he had the cooperation of Nyang’oro and Crowder, who previously weren’t talking. Nyang’oro was charged with fraud — a charge later dropped when he began cooperating with Wainstein.
But it’s unclear why previous investigations did not uncover the damning emails, or whether the statements of the athletic advisers were different in the past.
The latest one, though, did find that some coaches knew what was happening.
Former head football coach John Bunting, for instance, told investigators he knew of the paper classes. His successor, Butch Davis, who was fired a few years back for his role, also admitted some knowledge.
The investigators made no findings about Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach and sports icon who coached 36 years at UNC.
And the current basketball coach, Roy Williams, has adamantly denied knowing anything.
Reacting Saturday to the report, Williams told reporters “it’s a very sad time for me” as not only UNC’s head basketball coach, but also a former assistant coach and student there.
As to what happens next, Williams said he doesn’t see anything in Wainstein’s report pertaining to “men’s basketball that somebody can immediately look at and say this is going to happen or this is not going to happen.”
“The thing about it is that we tried to do the right thing,” the coach said. “I can’t determine what the NCAA is going to do.”
CNN’s Devon Sayers and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.
By Sara Ganim