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Athletics-related motivations are not to blame for the breakdowns within the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies, in which hundreds of students -- half of whom were athletes -- received credit for no-show classes and benefited from unauthorized grade changes.

That was what one might call the positive takeaway from the latest investigation into the scandal, this one comprising two new reviews by former North Carolina Gov. James Martin and the management consulting firm Baker Tilly (both tapped by UNC). In laying all the blame on the department's former chair and his then-assistant, the reports also cleared faculty in the department of any wrongdoing, and found that the bogus classes and grades do not appear to have extended to other departments.

But the news was far from all good for the university: evidence of erroneous classes and grades extends all the way back to 1997 -- a decade earlier than UNC had previously documented -- and it indicates that the number of courses that were not managed or graded properly is quadruple what UNC had previously reported.

“What we found was astonishing in its enormity,” Martin said as he presented the reports to UNC’s Board of Trustees on Thursday morning. “This was not an athletic scandal, it was an academic one, which is worse, but an isolated one.”

The entire inquiry into African and Afro-American Studies was prompted after a former tutor allegedly helped a football player plagiarize a paper for the class. Scrutiny of the role of athletics in the scandal exploded this year, following reports of star athletes with suspect transcripts, and of those courses sometimes being packed with athletes. Of the 54 suspect classes identified in an earlier review into the department (a fraction of the 216 identified in the new report), nearly two-thirds of the enrolled students were athletes, the News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

But Martin and his team found no evidence that administrators, coaches or tutors knew what was happening in the department or directed athletes to those classes in particular. They emphasized Thursday that athletes did not receive any added benefits beyond what other students in the classes got. (The National Collegiate Athletic Association said in September that it couldn’t punish UNC over the scandal, for that same reason.)

They determined that athletes typically made up 30 percent of students in a given class -- “which arguably is not out of line, considering the personal interest of some athletes in these topics” -- although in a few instances the proportion of athletes exceeded 40 percent and “occasionally” much higher.

UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, who resigned in the face of the scandal (effective June 30, 2013), said in an interview Thursday that officials “feel good” that an independent review confirmed what UNC had said in May – that the missteps were not athletics-driven. But he wasn’t jumping for joy.

“There are things in the report that are still very, very sobering, about which we’re very serious,” Thorp said. “So I don’t think you can say you’re vindicated by something that still has these problems in it.”

In three months, Martin and Baker Tilly conducted 84 interviews (with students, faculty and staff members, and others) and reviewed 20 years’ worth of enrollment data and records.

UNC’s third review since last year made the magnitude of the problems more clear, but didn’t add a lot of new information. It follows a joint investigation by the university and the NCAA, and a subsequent internal UNC probe that reviewed courses taught in the department from summer 2007 through summer 2011.

In some cases, students received grades for completed work without the course being supervised by “an approved instructor of record.” In others, courses designed to include regular class time and instructor contact had little to none. Some students had grades changed without authorization in independent studies courses, while student grade rolls or grade change forms were submitted with forged signatures.

Subsequently, UNC administrators brought on Martin and Baker Tilly to make sure the misdeeds were restricted to the time period and department reviewed in that report. This latest review looked at all course sections with undergraduate students enrolled from fall 1994 through summer 2012.

In what might have been the best news of the day for UNC, Martin reported that the academic irregularities did not reach beyond African and Afro-American Studies. But in that department, it was bad.

Martin found problems dating to 1997, with 216 courses, or 40 percent of those examined, showing proven or potential anomalies. There were 454 suspected unauthorized grade changes. According to the report, the blame lies with only two individuals: the former department chair, Julius Nyang’oro, and the former department administrator Deborah Crowder.

“Eight other professors were unwittingly and indirectly compromised in dozens of instances in which someone else signed their signatures to grade rolls and grade changes,” Martin’s report reads. “They were innocent. This department has endured a year of unmitigated hell arising from the implied guilt by association, and the rumors and jokes at their expense. They had nothing to do with creating this monster, or serving its demands.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon UNC System President Tom Ross said Nyang’oro and Crowder “inflicted serious damage to the reputation of a great university.”

In the other, less-discussed review released Thursday, Baker Tilly determined that stricter measures UNC has put in place during the past few years are strong and should help the university avoid a similar problem in the future. Those new steps including better oversight of department chairs and audits on teaching loads.

“We don’t look for anomalies when someone is teaching too much,” Thorp said, “and if we’d have done that we would have picked this up a lot earlier.”

Martin and Baker Tilly were “unable to discern a clear motive” for those who established and offered the courses, but said the evidence supports the hypothesis that their primary purpose was to increase enrollment in the department.

“I believe personally that the big money from television contracts does distort values of collegiate sports programs,” Martin wrote in the report, “but we found no evidence that it was a factor in these anomalous courses.”

The most important thing for UNC to do now, Martin said at the meeting Thursday, is keep at it.

“[This scandal] was big enough to create a big deal of attention…. It was big enough to embarrass this institution, without question. It was big enough to question its foundations within the culture of the academic ranks,” Martin told the board. “I believe the standards you’ve adopted won’t let this happen again, but you’ve got to be eternally vigilant.”

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