CHAPEL HILL — Late last year, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall was eying possible misdemeanor charges against a retired department manager deeply involved in bogus classes frequented by athletes at UNC.
Previous noncriminal investigations had found Deborah Crowder was at the center of the creation of lecture-style classes that never met and that typically provided high grades for those who turned a term paper in at the end. The probes cited her access to grade rolls that could be altered. They also noted she had been given wide latitude in running the affairs of the African and Afro-American Studies department.
But on Tuesday, Woodall said that Crowder, 60, who retired in 2009, would not be charged with any crime. She is expected to cooperate with a new investigation into the academic fraud, one that UNC leaders say will seek to find out how it happened and why.
“Deborah Crowder was certainly someone we were investigating and looking at to potentially charge in the case,” Woodall said, “but when I looked at all the circumstances and her cooperating and continued cooperating I was not going to bring charges against her.”
Woodall’s decision creates the potential that Crowder will be called upon to testify against the other central figure in the case: former longtime African studies department Chairman Julius Nyang’oro, 59, of Durham.
Three months ago, Nyang’oro was charged with a low-level felony of obtaining property by false pretenses. His attorney, Bill Thomas of Durham, has said his client is innocent and will fight the charge in court.
But perhaps more important, Crowder’s cooperation gives Kenneth Wainstein, a well-known former U.S. Justice Department official, a big break as he begins the new inquiry announced last month. Despite several previous probes and reviews, how the bogus classes started remains a mystery.
“That’s the critical piece that is currently missing, and in any inquiry, to the extent that you have an insider explaining the why, it makes all the paper facts come to life,” said Stephen Miller, a Philadelphia lawyer with expertise in criminal and NCAA matters.
The previous university investigations have found that Nyang’oro and Crowder engineered more than 200 confirmed or suspected lecture-style classes that never met, dating as far back as the mid-1990s.
Woodall said he could not discuss what Crowder has told investigators. But he said the criminal investigation was not intended to get at the cause of the academic fraud, which involved disproportionately high numbers of enrolled athletes. The new inquiry will dig into that.
“I really feel like this is the best opportunity for the university to learn what happened, and a criminal investigation was never the vehicle to do that,” Woodall said.
Wainstein and three others in his Washington, D.C., firm will conduct the probe. He said in a statement that he is “grateful to District Attorney Jim Woodall and Ms. Crowder’s counsel, Brian Vick, for arranging this important development in our investigation.”
Crowder lives north of Pittsboro in Chatham County in a condo next to one owned by Warren Martin, a former UNC basketball player who later became a schoolteacher. She and Martin have been in a long-standing relationship, the university has confirmed.
Vick said in a statement that Crowder was referring all interview requests to him.
“Debby looks forward to providing Mr. Wainstein her full and complete cooperation and will answer any and all questions that he may have for her,” Vick said. “She believes that it is important for the full and unvarnished truth to come out and intends to provide Mr. Wainstein with as much knowledge as she has about the independent study classes that were offered during her tenure with the Department of African and Afro-Studies at UNC.”
Crowder retired after working 30 years for the university, state records show. Her highest pay as a department manager was just under $40,000 in her final year.
University officials say she and Nyang’oro were the only two people responsible for the scandal. Other records obtained by The News & Observer show that staff with the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes knew the classes didn’t meet and weren’t challenging. They steered academically challenged athletes, including freshmen, to them.
Other correspondence shows that a tutor sent Crowder topics for the papers in two classes, seeking Crowder’s approval even though she was not a professor.
A UNC-backed investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin theorized that Crowder was involved in creating the classes out of a desire to help any student in need. That would include students who were struggling to find a class so they maintained their full-time status or who needed a class to graduate on time.
But nearly half of the enrollments in the classes came from athletes. Mary Willingham, a learning specialist who blew the whistle on the classes to The N&O in 2011, said tutoring staffers were steering the athletes to them to help them stay eligible to play sports. A former football player, Michael McAdoo, said staff recommended them to him as a way to boost his GPA.
Independent studies grow
The African studies department was also making available hundreds of independent studies during the first half of the last decade, many more than it had faculty to manage. Those independent studies, intended from the start not to include lectures, were also popular with football and men’s basketball players.
The independent studies were cut back in the latter half of the decade, at the same time as a similar independent study scandal became public at Auburn University. Despite inquiries from UNC faculty in late 2006 about whether a similar scandal could be happening here, the news of the high numbers of independent studies did not become known until 2011, when the no-show classes were discovered.
In 2005, academic counselors who served the rest of the student body said Crowder was concerned that the “frat circuit” might have discovered the independent studies, and was seeking to curb enrollments.
Crowder has close ties to athletics, and her Facebook page listed many star athletes and athletic department staff. She has never publicly explained her role in the scandal.
Nyang’oro was charged with fraud for accepting $12,000 for a summer class that UNC officials say was never taught. That 2011 class was filled with football players.