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Who’s Going to Be Punished for the Worst Academic Scandal Anyone Can Remember?

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s fake-classes scandal is one of the worst athletic-impropriety-meets-academic-fraud dramas that anybody can remember. Following the release in 2014 of an expansive and damning report by a former federal prosecutor, Kenneth L. Wainstein, Chapel Hill watchers were quick to ask: What’s the NCAA going to do about it?

They got their first major signal on Monday, when the National Collegiate Athletic Association released its amended Notice of Allegations against the university. The notice lays out the claims that will then be adjudicated in the association’s Committee on Infractions, which hands down penalties.

The UNC case is unusual in that (among other things) the NCAA had already released a Notice of Allegations. It has been amended, however, because the university reported a new round of information after the release of the first. On Monday observers compared the two notices, looking for clues about whether the association would issue harsh penalties.

The consensus: The association will very likely shy away from levying the punishments that UNC’s fans and constituents most feared. At the top of the list: serious sanctions against the football and men’s basketball teams — past, present, and future. One of the Wainstein report’s top-line findings was that members of the 2005 national-champion men’s basketball team were enrolled heavily in the African-American-studies department’s sham classes. Would the championship banner have to come down?

In its new notice, the NCAA removed all explicit references to the men’s basketball and football teams. The allegations that would apply to them, implicitly — two that accuse the university of a “lack of institutional control” over athletics — now have a narrower time period. That prompted Dan Kane, the News & Observer investigative reporter who broke much of the news surrounding the scandal, to conclude the following:

As the Tar Heel faithful breathed a sigh of relief, observers in the news media wondered: What is the NCAA thinking? “NCAA’s latest notice to UNC takes an unexpected turn,” read a headline on ESPN. Or the News & Observer: “UNC faces a gentler set of NCAA allegations” and “NCAA revises its entire approach to UNC scandal.”

The smart money seems to favor no huge punishments from the NCAA. Does that mean the fallout from the scandal is over? When all is said and done, who’s going to be punished for one of the most shocking and wide-ranging academic-fraud scandals on the books?

To answer that question, first let’s look at who has the authority to punish Chapel Hill:

The NCAA

Even though it has appeared to back away from issuing earth-shaking sanctions (it’s worth keeping in mind that the NCAA has been accused of vast disciplinary overreach in the past), the association will still come down with something. More on what that might be, below. The timeline: The university has 90 days to respond to the new allegations. The NCAA then has 60 days to respond to that response. Then the Committee on Infractions will consider the case and release a decision.

UNC’s accrediting agency

Months after the release of the Wainstein report, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges put the university on one-year probation. “It’s the most serious sanction we have,” Belle S. Wheelan, the commission’s president, said at the time. Which is precisely the problem. Short of revoking UNC’s accreditation, a laughably unlikely proposition, the accreditor has already done what it can do.

Itself

The university, of course, can self-impose penalties. The athletic director, Bubba Cunningham, acknowledged in a news conference on Monday that if the institution wanted to self-impose penalties in anticipation of the NCAA’s disciplinary deliberations, now would be the time to do it.

Which brings us to the other side of the coin: When the dust settles, who’s going to be punished?

People UNC has already fired

This includes Jan Boxill, the former chair of the faculty whose apparent involvement in the scandal shocked academe (and whose lawyer on Monday denied the allegations), and several members of the athletic department’s academic-support staff, among others named in the Wainstein report. Several others were disciplined short of dismissal.

As for the ringleaders of the scheme: Deborah Crowder, the department manager who was found to have designed the system, retired years before it came to light. Julius Nyang’oro, the department’s chairman while the scheme was going on, resigned shortly after the university began investigating the department.

That is not to mention the hordes of people whose jobs were claimed amid the controversy that began to unfold in 2011, including: Holden Thorp, the former chancellor who resigned in 2012, and is now provost at Washington University in St. Louis; and Butch Davis, the former football coach whom Mr. Thorp fired while the principal accusations dealt with improper benefits for football players. According to the Wainstein report, Mr. Davis was present at a 2009 meeting during which members of the football-counseling staff said Ms. Crowder’s recent retirement had brought an end to the sham courses, whose students “didn’t go to class,” “didn’t have to meet with professors,” and “didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material.”

The women’s basketball team

The only team still mentioned in the NCAA’s amended notice is the women’s basketball team. It’s unclear why the association would remove mentions of the other two teams, when all three were named in the report as having benefited heavily from the fake classes:

Although the two teams are still connected to the scandal, the association seems to be imposing a procedural hamstring on itself:

Future players

Penalties that the NCAA is known to lean on in serious cases include scholarship restrictions, among other things, which would hit hardest players who were in high school or younger as the fake classes were in full swing.

Clarification (5/2/2016, 8:15 p.m.): This article has been updated to provide further detail on Butch Davis’s knowledge of sham classes at UNC. An earlier version said that the Wainstein report had found Mr. Davis “complicit” in the fake-course scheme.

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