RALEIGH, N.C – An accreditation agency important to colleges receiving federal funds put the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on probation Thursday for a year over its academic fraud scandal.
The board of Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges stopped short of imposing the harshest penalty, which would have blocked the country's oldest public university from receiving federal funds including student loan proceeds.
At a meeting in Portsmouth, Virginia, the group determined that UNC-CH failed to comply with seven key operating principles for member universities, among them: integrity, program content, control of intercollegiate athletics and academic support services.
The practical effect of the sanction is that "they just have to send us more documentation to show their compliance with seven of these principles," commission President Belle Wheelan said.
The agency previously opted against punishing UNC-CH, but acted after learning last fall of the scope of fake classes and artificially high grades in one academic department. A report revealed that the fake classes in the African studies department had gone on between 1993 and 2011. About half the 3,100 students who took the classes were athletes.
"Most of the students here aren't athletes and a lot of them go to class and work hard in class," senior psychology student Merrick Osborne said as he crossed the Chapel Hill campus Thursday. "I think the biggest concern I would have is the probation would affect people who don't really have anything to do with the incidents."
New UNC-CH graduate James Draper said he believes his alma mater got off easy.
"This university did something wrong and we're being punished for it," said Draper, who now works as a biology research assistant.
Wheelan said board members stopped short of action that would mean the loss of federal funds in part because campus chancellor Carol Folt, who took over in 2013, and administrators she brought in hadn't been responsible for the festering problems.
Folt's team "had done a lot of work to clean up the problem," Wheelan said.
"But there's still these seven standards that the board felt they had not demonstrated compliance yet."
Folt said in an interview that she never worried the university might lose accreditation or federal funds.
"I did not think that would be a fair resolution," Folt said. "They're asking us to show continued progress on all the reforms that were put in place. So we presented two years of data on a number of things and they want to see a third year, and I understand that."
A report in October by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein found lecture classes that didn't meet and were treated as an independent study requiring a research paper or two. Wainstein's report also detailed how academic counselors enrolled athletes in those classes and how poor oversight throughout the university allowed the fraud to run unchecked for so long.
Wainstein was able to interview former department chairman Julius Nyang'oro and retired administrator Deborah Crowder. Neither had cooperated with earlier investigations but spoke to Wainstein after a state prosecutor agreed not to press charges.
The academic investigation grew out of a 2010 investigation into the school's football program.
The country's main college sports sanctioning body, the NCAA, last month accused UNC-Chapel Hill of failing to control its intercollegiate athletics program and four other severe violations, but didn't charge the school with academic fraud.
Nationwide, regional accrediting agencies placed 21 schools on probation and withdrew accreditation for 17 others around the country in 2014 and the first three months of this year, according to figures compiled by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.