After months of questions and pressure from whistle-blowers, academic reform groups, the public and members of Congress, the NCAA has decided to reopen its investigation into The University of North Carolina over its so-called paper class scandal.
UNC has been under scrutiny since 2011, when it was revealed that it had hundreds of classes in the Afro-American studies program that required no attendance and just a single paper. The issue received national attention after CNN highlighted literacy problems at UNC. In one CNN report, whistle-blower Mary Willingham said the so-called "paper classes" were well known by the athletic support staff as easy classes for athletes who needed to stay eligible, and that the papers were often plagiarized.
Willingham's job was to help athletes who weren't quite ready academically for the work required at UNC at Chapel Hill, one of the country's top public universities. She said she learned about the fake classes through her work.
Even though many athletes were enrolled in those paper classes, the NCAA had previously decided the scandal was not an athletic one, and did not sanction the university. That left a lot of unanswered questions and prompted Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-California, to write a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert demanding answers.
Willingham said she was not interviewed by the NCAA during its first investigation. On Monday, she said the NCAA had lost credibility by not investigating the issue. Now, she said, the NCAA shouldn't focus on punishment: "Instead, they should focus on how to use the UNC example to reform the entire system."
Several athletes have also said publicly that they were forced to major in Afro-American studies by athletic staff.
For years, and after several internal investigations, UNC said a single professor, Julius Nyang'oro, knew about the fake classes. Until now, the NCAA stood behind the university on that claim.
Then, earlier this year, after a flurry of national reporting, UNC commissioned yet another investigation, this time by former Homeland Security Secretary Ken Wainstein.
Wainstein has received 1.5 million e-mails and documents, interviewed more than 30 employees, and acquired athlete transcripts going back to the 1980s in his investigation.
While he is not giving updates, he did tell the UNC board at a meeting recently that his team has gotten "extremely valuable" information from people who have reached out to help the investigation.
Among those cooperating, he said, is Nyang'oro.
Nyang'oro was indicted on a fraud charge in December, but Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said recently that he is considering dropping the charge because Nyang'oro has been so cooperative.
"Even though it's a noncriminal investigation, that is more important than this," Woodall said, referring to Wainstein's review.
"The money is paid back already," Woodall said. "This was more of an academic scandal than any kind of criminal issue. ... In the criminal probe what we're left with is one low-level nonviolent felony for a person never in trouble before in his life."
UNC said it directed Wainstein to share what he finds with the NCAA, and both UNC and the NCAA said that it was the cooperation from "additional people" that prompted the NCAA investigation to be re-opened.
Cardenas' office has received a response from the NCAA. A spokesman for his office said it is still going through the response.