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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sponsored fake classes for nearly two decades, giving students, many of them athletes, credit for courses never taught by instructors. But the university will escape all punishment by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The ruling the association announced Friday has been publicly panned as going light in response to one of the worst academic scandals in college sports history, adding to what some observers say is mounting evidence of the NCAA’s continuing weakness in controlling and punishing its member institutions.

After a three-and-half-year investigation, and despite the institution even agreeing that it had engaged in academic fraud, the NCAA said it couldn’t definitively conclude that the “paper courses” in the department of African and Afro-American studies had been designed and offered as an effort to benefit athletes alone. Thus, according to the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which adjudicates allegations of wrongdoing, the courses did not violate the group's rules.

The university aggressively fought the NCAA's efforts to assert its authority in this case, spending roughly $18 million on legal and other fees. The NCAA's enforcement division, which essentially acts as the prosecutor in infractions cases, had charged North Carolina with "lack of institutional control" and "failure to monitor" its athletes' academic courses, among the most serious charges in the associations' rule book. But the infractions committee said it could not reach those findings because it did not have evidence to prove the underlying charges of awarding "extra benefits" to athletes.

Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and leader of infractions panel, said in a statement that his panel was "troubled by the university's shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus."

“However, NCAA policy is clear. The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership," his statement said.

In a conference call with reporters, Sankey acknowledged that “more likely than not” the classes had been set up to keep athletes eligible, but he also said that the evidence put before the committee did not prove so definitively.

“I think it’s important to understand the panel is in no way supporting what happened,” Sankey said.

Instead, the NCAA will forward its decision to the university's accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, which can address academic inconsistencies. Previously, the body had placed the university on a yearlong probation in 2015, ending in 2016, for violating seven accreditation standards, one of them being academic integrity. It was the strongest punishment the accreditor could deliver besides revoking accreditation entirely.

A Complex and Confounding Case

At its core, the NCAA was examining whether UNC had violated the association's restrictions on “extra benefits,” which refers to certain advantages, such as financial payments or academic assistance, that are offered to athletes but not the wider student body.

A law firm's 2014 report commissioned by the university did find that nonathletes also benefited from the classes. That report, which cited a “woeful lack of oversight” and a culture that confused academic freedom with lack of accountability, concluded that more than 3,100 UNC students enrolled in the courses. About half of those in the 188 faux classes were athletes. Investigators concluded that university employees were aware of the fraud and actively steered athletes and other struggling students to those courses.

The report details a plan by Deborah Crowder, a former manager in the African and Afro-American studies department, who was sympathetic to struggling students ("particularly athletes"), to help them. Julius Nyang’oro, former chairman of the department, delegated her significant responsibilities, enabling Crowder to set up classes that required only a single research paper, which she graded without much regard to their quality.

"Crowder felt a strong affinity for student athletes in particular, and she gave them ready access to these watered-down classes to help them manage their competing athletic and academic time demands," the report states.

The Committee on Infractions report reads like it was written while its members were biting their collective tongues. It acknowledges that athletes clearly benefited from the longstanding arrangement, presenting evidence that "the classes disproportionately favored student-athlete enrollments, the courses had a recognizable positive impact on [athletes'] GPAs" and the officials in the university's academic advising unit for athletes "colluded with" the Afro-American studies department chair and department secretary "to benefit student athletes."

The report also criticizes UNC officials for shifting their views about whether what occurred there was academic fraud, noting that the university acknowledged that misconduct had occurred upon release of the law firm's 2014 report (and said as much to the accrediting agency), but then argued to the contrary during the NCAA's infractions process, when such a concession might have opened it to significant penalties. Among other things, the panel notes that the university contended that its use of the phrase "academic fraud" was a typographical error.

"The panel is troubled by UNC's shifting positions … depending on the audience," the report states.

The report goes on to state that its members generally believe that UNC athletes benefited from the wrongdoing in a way that the NCAA would normally seek to punish. "It is more likely than not that student athletes received fraudulent credit by the common understanding of what that term means. It is also more likely than not that UNC personnel used the courses to purposely obtain and maintain student athletes' eligibility" -- exactly the type of behavior that NCAA rules are designed to prevent and punish.

The panel notes that it considered adding an allegation of academic fraud against UNC -- as the committee has the authority to do -- even though the association's enforcement staff had not made that charge against the university. (The infractions committee's report implicitly criticizes the enforcement division for framing the UNC wrongdoing exclusively as an "extra benefits" case.) But UNC's vehement (recent) assertions that the courses did not violate UNC policy at the time and that the grades awarded would continue to count toward degrees left the panel with no choice, its members said, not to bring an academic fraud charge.

Punishments and Not

Crowder and Nyang'oro were punished by the infractions panel for unethical conduct and failure to cooperate, and the former department chair received a relatively meaningless five-year show-cause order from the NCAA, meaning the now retired academic will find it difficult to secure a job in college athletics.

Asked by a reporter what the NCAA would consider a breach of the “extra benefits” rule -- whether the UNC case would have qualified if significantly more athletes than nonathletes had enrolled in the classes -- Sankey, head of the infractions panel, didn’t answer directly, saying he wanted to avoid hypotheticals.

Another reporter questioned the availability of the courses; while nonathletes enrolled, interviews the reporter conducted suggested that the classes weren't widely known or advertised.

In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, Mark Merritt, UNC's vice chancellor and general counsel, characterized the classes not as fraudulent, but rather lacking professorial oversight with easy grading -- akin to an independent study model, he said.

The university was not proud of the behavior, Merritt said during the call, but argued that it did not violate NCAA bylaws.

"The university does not minimize the extent of the academic irregularities it experienced, even as it emphasizes that those matters are beyond the NCAA’s purview," UNC's lawyers stated in a letter to the NCAA last year in which it strongly disputed the NCAA's charges. "These matters concern fundamental institutional, not athletic, integrity, and they are not the proper subject of an NCAA enforcement action."

UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt in the afternoon call said she “expected” this outcome after the NCAA had reviewed the case, despite intense clashing between the association and the university.

When asked by a reporter whether Folt would support prospective NCAA legislation to make shadow courses like UNC’s a punishable offensive, she refused to answer, saying that the college accreditors were well equipped to handle academic fraud.

Folt said in an earlier statement Friday, “Carolina long ago publicly accepted responsibility for what happened in the past. One of the highest priorities of this administration has been to resolve this issue by following the facts, understanding what occurred and taking every opportunity to make our university stronger.”

Despite NCAA assertions that it was bound by its bylaws, it stepped in and levied harsh sanctions in one infamous case in which the institution didn’t violate one clear rule: Pennsylvania State University. In 2012, when the child molestation scandal involving the former coach Jerry Sandusky was at its peak, the NCAA circumvented its usual process of an independent panel assigning punishment, and its executive committee instead slammed the university with $60 million in fines -- then considered about a year’s worth of football revenue -- and vacated wins from 1998 onward.

At the time, athletics experts said they believed the move could launch a new era of NCAA enforcement, though back then, the association’s president, Mark Emmert, denied that it was “opening Pandora’s box.”

Reactions From the Experts

Josephine R. Potuto, the Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a former member of the Division I infractions committee, said that the infractions committee's report was filled with the sort of language the panel uses when it is unhappy with the choices before it.

"They did what a hearing body is supposed to do: evaluating the evidence it received according to the laws that the legislative body [the NCAA's members] have given you," Potuto said. But the panel's report managed to make pretty clear, she added, that its members were concerned about UNC's behavior, "how the case was charged by the enforcement division" and "whether where the member institutions have drawn the line is the right place to draw the line" in defining academic misconduct.

Last year, the NCAA's members for the first time in three decades altered the association's rules governing academic fraud, which essentially make colleges accountable for holding athletes to the same academic integrity policies that apply to all of their students, but put the onus on the institutions themselves (rather than the association) to gauge when such misconduct occurs.

There is a "really solid argument for where that line is drawn," Potuto said, given that the NCAA is primarily an athletics body and colleges (and their faculties) tend to want autonomy over academic matters.

But such an approach essentially leaves the association without recourse if an institution judges academic fraud not to have occurred by its own policies, Potuto said -- which the following language in the infractions panel's report pretty clearly suggests may have happened in this case:

"The membership trusts academic entities to hold themselves accountable and report academic fraud to the NCAA and has chosen to constrain who decides what constitutes academic fraud. Because of this limitation, UNC's decision to support the courses as legitimate combined with a stale and incomplete record that does not allow the panel to drill down to the course and assignment level -- even if the panel had wanted to second-guess the courses -- it cannot conclude academic fraud occurred."

“What they’re saying is, ‘Here’s what we’re bound to, by the bylaws that were adopted and the evidence that was given to us,’” Potuto said.

She said she suspected the UNC case might prompt the NCAA's members to reassess where they have drawn the line on academic misconduct.

Marc Edelman, professor of law at Baruch College and a sports law specialist, said that the NCAA errs on the side of stricter sanctions when it wants to. Because the Penn State case received such an avalanche of negative press, the NCAA perceived it was politically prudent to act. If the association had cracked down in this case, it likely would have opened the possibility of investigations into similar practices -- which are almost certainly happening -- at other big-name institutions, Edelman said.

In this case, Edelman said, UNC probably benefited from the recent scandal in the college basketball world, in which federal prosecutors last month announced bribery and corruption charges against four assistant or associate coaches at top-tier institutions, and a bevy of Adidas executives and others affiliated with the company. The FBI is continuing its investigation in the case, with hints that the fraud is much more widespread. Edelman said the association doesn't want to be engaging in pricey legal battles with multiple of its members.

Dave Ridpath, president of the athletics ethics watchdog Drake Group, called the NCAA and its ruling "shameful," and said that it demonstrates institutions can get away with academic fraud and game the system.

Ridpath said according to athletics directors and former members of the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions he spoke with, this was a clear and atrocious example of academic fraud. But ultimately, Ridpath said, he wasn't surprised.

"I don't think that the NCAA enforcement committee ever would have the guts to punish North Carolina," he said.

Because of the severity of the scandal, Ridpath said UNC would be eligible for the NCAA's harshest sanction, the "death penalty," which would mean shutting down the institution's athletics for at least one season. Such a punishment hasn't been levied since the 1980s, when it was used against Southern Methodist University, however, making a death penalty in this case unlikely.

The NCAA back then "felt like" harshly punishing the next institution to break the rules, Edelman said.

"People have to remember NCAA is a private trade association that is run and operated by its members," he said. "Despite what the NCAA proclaims on paper, the primary objective of this association for upwards of the past 30 years is to keep the revenues from college sports in the hand of its own voting members -- coaches and athletics directors … One would like to believe the NCAA is primarily concerned about the education of athletes, but that seems to take a secondary role."

Doug Lederman contributed to this article.

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