Amid academic scandal, U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student paper joins suit for employee disciplinary records

The student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and nine other local news organizations filed suit Monday to access the names of faculty and staff who were punished for their involvement in an academic fraud scandal at the institution.

In October former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein released a 131-page report detailing how student athletes were funneled for 18 years into “paper classes” — which never met formally, did not have an assigned instructor and required an essay to pass — to ensure student-athletes were eligible to play.

At a press conference Oct. 22 to discuss Wainstein’s findings, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said the institution launched disciplinary action against nine employees — firing four — connected to the classes. However, she declined to identify them because of a university policy to keep personnel matters confidential until the disciplinary action is finalized, according to the lawsuit.

However, the state’s public records law and the State Personnel System Act prohibit the university from withholding information about disciplinary actions because it is a public institution, said Mike Tadych, the attorney for the news organizations, including The Daily Tar Heel.

“What we don’t have is a statutory exemption to allow them to withhold the records,” he said. “What we have is a university policy. The university’s own adopted policy, in our opinion, can’t override state law.”

On Oct. 23 local television station WRAL and The Daily Tar Heel requested the university release personnel records about employees identified in the report, but the documents provided didn’t include employment status after Oct. 22, the date of the press conference. The Associated Press and a local television station requested the personnel records but did not receive current employee documents.

The news organizations’ lawsuit, filed in Wake County Superior Court against Folt and Felicia Washington, a vice chancellor, aims to declare disciplinary and current personnel records are public and compel the university to open the records for examination.

University spokesman Rick White said in a statement the institution did not release current personnel information to the media because the employees could file an appeal or grievance against the disciplinary action.

White said the university “will provide information about dismissals, suspensions or demotions for disciplinary reasons when those actions are final and due process has been afforded.”

North Carolina’s state personnel statutes require the university to record and release upon request information about the salary, promotions, disciplinary actions, dismissals and current status of the employee.

Under the state’s public records law, government agency leaders can release more information than is required by law if the information is “essential to maintaining the integrity of such department.”

“The integrity of the university is at stake,” Tadych said, “and the release of this information is warranted.”

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.