CHAPEL HILL — Independent study classes and other courses within a University of North Carolina department popular with athletes will undergo an "in-depth" review, the dean of the university's College of Arts and Sciences told trustees Wednesday.
Addressing questions of academic integrity raised in the wake of an NCAA investigation into the Tar Heels football program, UNC dean Karen Gil has ordered the review, which will reemphasize the need to set new standards for syllabuses and required course work for the classes under scrutiny.
"I take these matters very seriously, and we are going forward looking to strengthen our policies and practices within the department," Gil said.
In recent weeks, UNC's Department of African and Afro-American Studies has come under scrutiny after former department chairman Julius Nyang'oro was found to have missed plagiarism by one football player, allowed another to enter an upper-level class as an incoming freshman despite needing a remedial writing course, and hired a sports agent to teach a summer class.
Last week, the university released information showing that football players account for more than 20 percent of the UNC students enrolling for independent studies. The university confirmed that the use of independent studies by football players was among the possible "irregularities" they found within the department.
This past summer, athletes accounted for nine of the 10 independent study enrollments under Nyang'oro.
Independent study classes are courses in which no class sessions are held, but students are typically required to produce an end-of-term project, usually a paper. They have been tied to numerous athletic scandals at top college football programs such as Auburn University and the University of Michigan. The classes are open to abuse because of the absence of class time and little oversight of the course work produced.
According to data produced by UNC in response to a News & Observer records request, football players accounted for 68 of the 327 enrollments in independent study courses offered by the department over the last five years. One men's basketball player accounted for one of the 327 enrollments.
In that same time period, UNC football players accounted for 724 enrollments in all classes offered by the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, with independent studies courses representing 9 percent of that total.
Of the independent study courses taken by Tar Heels football players, university records indicate that Nyang'oro taught 32, or nearly half of the football enrollments. The rest were largely spread among several other faculty members.
Nyang'oro, who has declined to comment, resigned as department head earlier this month after N&O reports tied him to other academic issues with the football team. Plagiarism in a term paper submitted by former UNC player Michael McAdoo went undetected by Nyang'oro until the term paper was submitted this summer in court papers related to McAdoo's suit against the university and the NCAA. (Fans of rival N.C. State pounced on the plagiarized passages after the court filings were posted online.)
Nyang'oro also allowed former UNC player Marvin Austin to take an upper-level Afro-American Studies class as an incoming freshman, even though he was in need of a remedial writing class.
Agent as teacher
Most recently, Nyang'oro hired Carl Carey Jr., a sports agent - and former UNC academic advisor to Tar Heels football players - to teach a summer course. At the time, Carey, who has a doctorate, was representing two former UNC football players.
These issues came to light after an NCAA investigation had already found academic fraud related to a football team tutor and impermissible benefits offered to football players from agents, their go-betweens and others. It is unclear whether the new issues are triggering further NCAA investigation.
UNC chancellor Holden Thorp and other university officials are scheduled to appear before the NCAA's Committee of Infractions on Oct. 28 in Indianapolis before a final ruling on penalties.
University data also shows that the football players enrolled in independent study classes taught during the summer, when semesters are compressed into five weeks, and in the fall when they would have been competing on the football field. During several of the summer semesters, they accounted for the majority of enrolled students in independent study classes.
Only five enrollments were recorded for spring semesters, when football players have much lighter athletic schedules.
The Department of African and Afro-American Studies offers two independent study courses for seniors who are majoring in bachelor degrees offered by the department. A minimum grade-point average of 3.2 is required. No athletes were enrolled in those classes.
Gil said last week that the college-wide review of independent studies classes requires administrators to offer recommendations that set student workloads and minimum required contacts students must have with professors and teaching assistants. She also wants them to suggest standards for courses that involve lectures and seminars that are not delivered in the traditional classroom format, as well as what steps should be taken to convert directed readings courses to permanent courses.
Gil said the review of the department also reemphasized the need to set new standards for syllabuses, which explain what courses are about and the work expected of students. University officials have had difficulties producing syllabuses for some classes within the African Studies department, including the one in which McAdoo submitted a plagiarized paper. University officials said that has been a longstanding concern across all departments that they began looking into before the NCAA investigation.
Jan Boxill, chairman of the university's faculty council, told trustees the African Studies department faculty understands the need for the university's investigation and is "confident that they will emerge a stronger and more effective unit."
Trustees asked administrators about a planned revamping of the academic advising program for student athletes. Changes include gearing up a largely dormant faculty advisory committee that would evaluate academic progress, increasing staff to make sure athletes are getting the help they need and moving away from hiring undergraduate students to tutor athletes.
Trustee Alston Gardner was particularly concerned about undergraduate students tutoring athletes. Jennifer Wiley, the tutor who became a focus of the NCAA investigation in Chapel Hill, was an undergraduate student who UNC officials later acknowledged had become too friendly with football players.
In the fall of 2010, eight UNC undergraduates worked as tutors, 14 in the spring semester of 2011. Four undergraduates continue to serve as tutors, but the university is hiring public school teachers from the area to tutor athletes.
"Are we going to continue to have undergraduate students serve as tutors in this program?" Gardner asked.
"We hope that number is going to go down," said Bobbi Owen, the senior associate dean of undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences.
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