Yolanda Kumar, the whistleblower who triggered an NCAA investigation into academic fraud in the University of Missouri athletic department, told The Star in an exclusive interview on Tuesday night how and why she allegedly helped MU athletes cheat.
Kumar worked as a tutor for Mizzou’s Total Person Program off and on during the last six years. She said she was “groomed” to help keep athletes academically eligible, particularly football and men’s basketball players, and completed their classes, took tests and answered assessment questions.
She said she participated in at least a dozen serious cases of academic fraud involving both men’s and women’s athletes during a 16-month period.
“I think about what I’ve done and I cry, not because I’m sad or I’m weak,” Kumar said, “but because I’m so angry that I didn’t use my voice to say no.”
Kumar said she reported her “academic dishonesty” during an 18-minute phone call Nov. 2 with Mary Ann Austin, Mizzou’s executive associate athletic director for compliance.
“I was at my wit’s end,” Kumar said. “I had pretty much had enough, and I felt good that I had told her. Then, I realized I had opened all the evil and now the evil was out of the box and you can’t put it back in.”
“Academic dishonesty” is the term Kumar used Tuesday in a private Facebook post, which was obtained by The Star and other news outlets. She posted it early Tuesday afternoon after an attorney she’d consulted — but whose retainer she said she couldn’t afford — called to say he’d been contacted by the NCAA.
“I wanted to address my friends right away,” Kumar said, “because now the wolves are coming for me and I’m this fatty piece of meat and they’re like, ‘Let’s get her.’”
Mizzou athletic director Jim Sterk announced 5 1/2 hours later that it had “received allegations of potential academic rules violations” and opened an investigation.
When The Star asked MU football coach Barry Odom about the investigation Wednesday during the weekly SEC Football Coaches Teleconference, he said, “I’m very confident in our compliance department, working through this situation. … I’m excited about getting through this process. I look forward to working with all the parties involved to get all the information, all the background on everybody that’s involved in this and moving forward.”
Odom was asked if he was worried any of his players were involved and he said he was privy to little information.
“They’re gathering all the information that they can and, obviously, when it’s time for me to know something, Jim will do a great job on communicating that with me,” he said. “Our kids work extremely hard academically.”
During a news conference Wednesday at Mizzou Arena, The Star asked MU men’s basketball coach Kim Anderson if any of his players were involved in the alleged academic fraud.
“I don’t have much knowledge of it at all,” Anderson said. “I’m the basketball coach. I’m not the investigator. I think I’ve left that up to our people here. That’s kind of the way I’ve approached it.”
Anderson said he was aware that Kumar has worked with many athletes.
“I do take a little bit of offense when people say, ‘Well, it’s a basketball thing,’” Anderson said. “It’s not a basketball thing. It’s an athletic department thing. So, I don’t know who she’s worked with on my team. I’m not saying she hasn’t. I just don’t know.”
The Mizzou athletic department issued a statement Tuesday about the allegations that read, in part: “Consistent with our commitment to rules compliance and to operating our athletics program with integrity, we are conducting a review of the allegations. We also have informed the NCAA who is working with us on this matter. To protect the integrity of the review process, we will not comment further at this time.”
According to the school, the Total Person Program “provides MU student-athletes with a team of trained professionals to assist with the rigors of collegiate academics and athletics.”
Since Kumar started work for the program in 2010, she said she tutored hundreds of Mizzou athletes. But 15 cases, she said, involved serious academic fraud.
“Either I completed (an online class), I took a placement test, I assisted with the placement test,” she said, “or I was present during your online assessment and you asked me questions while you were taking the online assessment.”
Kumar said she reported her actions after reaching a breaking point.
A men’s athlete had been placed with Kumar last summer for help in a core class that she was told he needed to graduate.
“I did everything I could and he passed,” she said, “but he really was struggling with very basic things that my eighth-grader could do.”
When the athlete needed additional help to stay eligible this fall, he was again placed with Kumar for help with an online statistics class.
“It’s taken almost four weeks for him to even understand it. … I looked at him,” Kumar said as she burst into tears, “and he was so depressed that he couldn’t do it.”
Her voice now cracking, she repeated, “He couldn’t do it.
“No matter how many times I told him, how many examples I gave him, he couldn’t do it. It was just (expletive) adding. That was all he had to do was (expletive) add it up, and he couldn’t do it. It was me. I was looking at what I had done, because I helped this. I didn’t start it with him. I wasn’t the person who pushed him through high school. I didn’t get him this far in college, but I did this. I helped with this. This kid was going to fail and it was my fault, too.”
Kumar said the athlete was despondent because he couldn’t keep up with his coursework. She brought it up with his academic coordinator, who said he was advised to meet with a school psychologist, but nobody could force him to go.
“He’s so lost, and I helped. I helped ruin him,” Kumar said. “I probably can’t take it all, because it’s not all me. It’s not all me at all, but he was the one who forced me. That was enough. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Kumar, who received a bachelor’s degree in math and chemistry from Lincoln University in 2004 and a master’s degree in mathematics education from MU in 2010, first tutored for the Total Person Program in fall 2010 while working as an adjunct math teacher.
After becoming a full-time adjunct statistics instructor and part-time math instructor during the 2011-12 academic year, Kumar stopped working as a tutor. She briefly left Columbia after the spring semester, but returned in fall 2012 and resumed tutoring.
That’s when the grooming started, as she puts it.
“You’re just groomed,” Kumar said. “It’s just something that’s understood and the next thing you know, the same person keeps sending you students with the same situation. … I was put in a situation where I felt harassed to do certain things.”
Kumar declined to name specific athletes or staff members because she expects to be asked to testify in the NCAA investigation. However, she said she can document each case of alleged academic fraud.
“At some point, I realized this might come back to bite me,” Kumar said. “There’s classes, semesters, students.”
Kumar said her “first inkling” that she was doing more than tutoring came when she had a student who stopped going to a math class.
“I taught him the entire course, because he missed it,” she said. “He wasn’t a low-functioning student; he was a high-functioning student, but he just wasn’t motivated to sit through that lecture.”
Kumar taught math at Moberly High School in 2013-14, but returned to Mizzou in fall 2014, becoming “one of the most frequently requested and highly recommended in the department,” she said. While most tutors have fewer than 20 students per semester, Kumar said she often handled up to 35. Kumar, a single mother who worked two jobs, said she logged so many hours that she was asked to report some during holiday breaks.
While not naming them, Kumar said said she regularly saw the academic coordinators for football and men’s basketball players — listed on MU’s athletics directory as James Pulido for football and Krista Gray for men’s basketball.
Her involvement with those athletes differed from others. Kumar said she was asked to monitor some ALEKS assessment tests, which determine a student’s math aptitude and impact course placement.
“I shouldn’t even be in the room for that,” Kumar said.
But athletes soon started showing up for the sole purpose of taking the ALEKS assessment in her presence, she said.
Kumar points to another case in 2015, when she was called to a special meeting to discuss how to help a football player stay on track with summer courses while he was ill with the mumps.
“He needed to pass a finance class to be eligible, so I helped him,” she said. “He wrote down his username and password. His coordinator knew about it, saying help him with whatever.”
Roughly a month later, with that athlete playing football again, Kumar received a call from the basketball academic coordinator to help what she called “two high-profile athletes” with an online class.
“Next thing you know, I have passwords to these two students’ accounts and I’m helping them,” she said. “I took their first test, because it was non-proctored.”
In another case, Kumar said, an athlete’s coordinator told him to work with Kumar on a class he previously failed and stressed to her that all his exams were online.
“I don’t know how it got so bad, but most of my students were coming from those two people in the revenue-generating sports,” she said. “Then, there’s someone telling you, ‘He needs this class to pass. Do you understand? He has to have this class to pass, Yolanda.’”
At some point, Kumar said she completed an online course for two basketball players, taking the tests online and doing the written work in the class’ online discussion boards.
“It was something where the coordinator said he has to pass this class — ‘If he doesn’t pass, he can’t play. Yolanda, he needs to do this,’” Kumar said. “And I’m thinking, ‘OK, but he can’t (pass),’ only to hear, ‘Yolanda, we need to do whatever it takes.’ I took that definitely to mean that you need to finish this for him, because he has work that is due.”
The Star asked the Mizzou athletic department for comment about Kumar’s allegation of feeling pressure from academic coordinators, but the athletic department has yet to issue a response.
Kumar said basketball coaches occasionally made rounds during tutoring sessions, but she did not allege that any coaches ever witnessed academic fraud. However, Kumar is incredulous that academic coordinators couldn’t have known.
She also said the tutoring department may have tried to take advantage of her and her financial vulnerability.
According to Missouri court records, Kumar pleaded guilty to three separate misdemeanor charges of passing bad checks for less than $500 in 2009 and 2010. She paid a fine in one case and completed probation and paid restitution in the other two, in which she received suspended sentences. Kumar said she wrote the checks to cover expenses after her husband, who she said was physically abusive, left her.
Kumar said she’s “never tried to hide” her legal past and said she also filed for bankruptcy twice.
“In resigning, there’s nothing, there’s no gain there for me …,” Kumar said. “I’m completely ruined. My name is out there forever.”
She later continued, “I had friends check up on me and say, ‘They’re going to throw you under the bus.’ I said, ‘I’m already under the bus. I feel like I have the wheel on my esophagus. I can’t even breathe.’ There was only one way up from here for me. I got it out, and no matter what happens, it’s done. It’s no longer my burden to carry.”