CHAPEL HILL — A probe into academic "irregularities" at UNC-Chapel Hill's African and Afro-American studies department is targeting independent study classes after data released to The News & Observer this week show football players are accounting for more than 20 percent of the class enrollments over the past five years.
Karen Gil, dean of UNC-CH's College of Arts and Sciences, which includes the African studies department, said in a faculty newspaper published Wednesday that the college would review "policies and practices" collegewide for independent studies and "directed readings" courses. A university spokeswoman, Nancy Davis, confirmed the independent study courses within the department are among the possible irregularities officials have found.
University officials have said the possible irregularities involve nonathletes as well. Gil, Chancellor Holden Thorp and other officials have declined numerous requests to explain the irregularities.
Independent studies classes typically allow a student to work one-on-one with a professor to develop a lengthy term paper in a narrow subject area. Directed readings courses often require the same effort, but are tied to a specific set of readings required by the professor.
There is no classroom time for such courses, which makes them vulnerable to academic fraud. In 2006, The New York Times reported that Auburn University's sociology department chairman was allowing football players to take independent-study-style classes that required little or no work, boosting their grade point averages and helping them maintain their eligibility on the field.
John Nichols, co-chairman of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a reform group of faculty at colleges with big-time sports programs, said the number of student athlete enrollments raises a red flag that the university needs to dig into.
"Not knowing the local situation, it sounds like the academic side of the house is responding in an appropriate fashion to a potentially serious problem," said Nichols, a Penn State University professor.
The African Studies Department has come under scrutiny in the wake of the NCAA's investigation of academic misconduct and impermissible benefits in UNC-CH's football program. The department's chairman resigned after a series of troublesome disclosures about two players taking African studies classes, and the hiring of a sports agent to teach a summer class.
University records show the African Studies Department offered 76 independent study undergraduate classes over the past five years. Of 327 enrollments in those classes, football players accounted for 68, or 21 percent. Davis said there was one men's basketball player, at the time a senior, who took an independent study in that department during that period.
Davis said university officials can not say whether that percentage is problematic.
Gil said in the faculty report that she wants administrators to make recommendations as to what students should be expected to produce for such courses and how much contact during a semester they should have with professors or teaching assistants. She also wants them to offer guidance as to what kinds of conditions need to be set for courses that involve lectures and seminars that are not delivered in the standard classroom format, and what steps should be taken to convert directed readings courses to permanent courses.
Thorp delivered similar remarks to faculty members at their regular council meeting Friday.
The moves are the latest development related to the long-running NCAA investigation. Last season, 14 players missed at least one game, and seven sat out the entire 2010 season in connection with the probe.
In June, the NCAA notified UNC-CH of nine major violations, much of which pertain to a former assistant coach receiving money from a sports agent and football players receiving trips and other perks from agents or their go-betweens. UNC-CH has until Monday to respond to the allegations and is scheduled to appear Oct. 28 before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions.
Since the notice of allegations, Thorp has fired football coach Butch Davis and accepted the early retirement of athletic director Dick Baddour. But more problems have emerged for the university that speak directly to its academic integrity.
Former football player Michael McAdoo, in a bid to get reinstated to the team, made public a paper he wrote for one African Studies class and rival N.C. State University fans charged that the paper was heavily plagiarized. The N&O later confirmed the plagiarism and reported that the professor, Julius Nyang'oro, had missed it.
A transcript for another banned football player, Marvin Austin, showed that he had been allowed as an incoming freshman to take an upper-level African Studies class taught by Nyang'oro - who was also the department's longtime chairman - before taking a slate of introductory courses that included a remedial writing class. Nyang'oro resigned from the chairmanship two weeks ago after The N&O reported the sports agent hiring. Nyang'oro has declined numerous interview requests.
This week, NCAA officials visited the campus, but neither they nor UNC-CH officials would say why they were there.
Anecdotal evidence shows the department is popular with football and men's basketball players, but only a handful of them identify it as their major.
Two other majors - communications and exercise and sports science - are much more popular with student athletes.
Davis said of the 112 players on this season's football team, a third of them - 37 - have taken more than one course in the department, and 12 have taken at least three.
Nyang'oro is one of 16 professors who taught independent study classes within the department. It's unclear who taught the independent study classes that are being checked for irregularities, what was required of the students who took them, or what grades the students received.
It's also unclear how many "directed readings" classes were offered by the department. UNC-CH also has had difficulty producing syllabuses of some upper-level classes Nyang'oro taught, including the intermediate Swahili class that got McAdoo in trouble. University officials so far have been unable to confirm when and where that class was held. That class is not typically an independent study course.
Staff writer Ken Tysiac and news researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.
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