Report finds academic fraud evidence in UNC department

No-show professors, unauthorized grade changes affect more than 50 classes

dkane@newsobserver.comMay 4, 2012 

  • Highlights of the investigation Here are some excerpts from UNC-CH’s investigation into its Department of African and Afro-American Studies: From summer 2007 through summer 2009, 9 of these 616 courses (8 during summer sessions) with a collective total of 59 registered students were found to be aberrant: there is evidence that students completed written work in these courses, submitted it to the department and received grades, but no evidence that the faculty member listed as instructor of record or any other faculty member actually supervised the course and graded the work... ... grade rolls (for those courses) were submitted to the Office of the Registrar with faculty signatures that appear to be forged. The faculty members whose names appear on those grade rolls stated that they did not teach the courses in question and that the signatures on the submitted documents are not in their handwriting. In this same period ... an additional 43 courses ... with a collective total of 599 registered students were either aberrant ... or were taught irregularly, by which we mean: the instructor provided an assignment and evidently graded the resultant paper, but engaged in limited or no classroom or other instructional contact with students. Professor Nyang’oro was listed as the instructor of record or his name was listed on the grade rolls for each of these 43 courses. No instance was found of a student receiving a grade who had not submitted written work. No evidence indicated that student-athletes received more favorable treatment than students who were not athletes. In addition, no information was found to indicate that the Department personnel involved in these courses received a tangible benefit of any kind, beyond their standard University compensation.
  • More information Allegations Among allegations in UNC-CH report on Department of African and Afro-American Studies: • Students in nine courses received grades, but there was no evidence that faculty members supervised the courses and graded the work. • Some professors say their names were forged on documents used to certify they had taught classes. • In 43 courses, there was limited or no instructional contact with students. Professor Julius Nyang’oro was listed as the instructor of record or his name was listed on the grade rolls for these courses.

An internal investigation into UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies has found evidence of academic fraud involving more than 50 classes that range from no-show professors to unauthorized grade changes for students.

One of the no-show classes is the Swahili course taken by former football player Michael McAdoo that prompted NCAA findings of impermissible tutoring, and drew more controversy when the final paper he submitted was found to have been heavily plagiarized.

The investigation found many of the suspect classes were taught in the summer by former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, who resigned from that post in September. The university now says Nyang’oro, 57, who was the department’s first-ever chairman, is retiring July 1.

“Professor Nyang’oro offered to retire, and we agreed that was in the best interest of the department, the college and the university,” said Nancy Davis, associate vice chancellor for university relations.

The report, released Friday, evolved from the athletic and academic scandal that engulfed UNC’s football team, but it said there is no evidence that student-athletes received more favorable treatment than students who were not athletes. It also said that no student received a grade without doing course work. The report has been shared with the NCAA, which could not be reached for immediate comment.

The 10-page report said the findings are a blow to the university’s academic integrity. The findings were so serious that the university consulted with the district attorney and the SBI about investigating forgery allegations, as some professors said their signatures were forged in documents certifying that they had taught some of the classes in question. Professors also said they had not authorized grade changes for students that the department submitted to the registrar’s office.

Law enforcement officials declined to investigate because they did not think the forgeries, if proven, rose to the level of criminal activity, according to the report.

“We are deeply disturbed by what we have learned in the course of our review,” said Jonathan Hartlyn and William L. Andrews, two senior faculty administrators who conducted the investigation. “Our review has exposed numerous violations of professional trust, affecting the relationship of faculty and students and the relationships among faculty colleagues in this department.”

They added, “These violations have undermined the educational experience of a number of students, have the potential to generate unfounded doubt and mistrust toward the department and its faculty, and could harm the academic reputation of the university.”

‘Surprised and shocked’

Less than a year ago, Chancellor Holden Thorp expressed full confidence in Nyang’oro as concerns about his instruction began to surface. But Friday, in an interview, he was hard pressed to recall a more serious case of academic impropriety at UNC-CH, which is considered one of the top public universities in the nation.

“I was surprised and shocked and sad that these things could happen here, and that some students didn’t get the full benefit to a Carolina education,” Thorp said.

Hartlyn and Andrews looked at all courses taught within the department starting with the summer 2007 sessions and ending with the summer 2011 sessions. Nearly all the problem courses took place in the summer sessions of 2007, 2008 and 2009. They are a small minority of the nearly 620 courses taught during that period.

The report said the department’s long-time administrator, Deborah Crowder, would have overseen much of the course scheduling and grade recording. She retired in September 2009 and declined to be interviewed for the internal investigation.

Crowder made $36,130 a year before retiring. She could not be reached.

The NCAA investigation

The problems first surfaced two years ago during the NCAA’s investigation into improper benefits for football players. The NCAA found that a tutor, Jennifer Wiley, had provided impermissible academic help to three football players. Wiley was a student when she began tutoring for UNC-CH’s athletic department, but by the time she had graduated, the university had dropped her for being too friendly with student athletes.

But in the summer of 2009, Michael McAdoo, a defensive end for the Tar Heels, asked Wiley to help him on a paper for an intermediate Swahili class taught by Nyang’oro. Wiley, the NCAA found, had supplied a bibliography and footnotes for the paper, work that McAdoo was expected to do. The impermissible help played a big role in the NCAA’s decision to revoke McAdoo’s remaining two years of eligibility.

McAdoo sued in state Superior Court to try to get back on the team, and in doing so, he included the paper as an exhibit. Rival N.C. State fans quickly analyzed the paper and found several passages of plagiarism that the university, its honor court, university athletic and academic officials, and the NCAA did not catch. The Wolfpack fans buzzed about the plagiarism on message boards, and the media, particularly a blog known as SportsbyBrooks, took notice. The N&O confirmed the plagiarism in a follow-up report.

Professor-less classes

But the plagiarism was just the beginning of the questions for Nyang’oro, who was the department’s first chairman when it was formed 20 years ago.

The N&O later obtained a partial academic transcript of Marvin Austin, another football player caught up in the football scandal. The transcript showed that Austin took an upper-level summer class from Nyang’oro before Austin began his first full semester as a freshman, and before he had taken a remedial writing class. Nyang’oro gave Austin a B-plus on the course.

Nyang’oro could not produce a syllabus for that class, Bioethics in Afro-American Studies, or the Swahili class that McAdoo took. That was another red flag, particularly because syllabi provided by other professors teaching intermediate Swahili focused on reading and writing in Swahili, not writing papers about Swahili culture in English.

Nyang’oro told the university investigators he did not teach the Swahili class. The plagiarized paper McAdoo submitted lists Nyang’oro’s name as the course professor. The investigation found it was one of nine classes in which there is no evidence that any professor “actually supervised the course and graded the work, although grade rolls were signed and submitted.” Other professors who were listed on grade rolls for those classes said their names were forged on course documents.

McAdoo was one of 59 students taking those classes.

The investigation found more than 40 other courses, most of them during summer sessions, in which Nyang’oro was the instructor of record but there was little evidence of teaching. The instructor would provide an assignment and grade the class paper, “but engaged in limited or no classroom or other instructional contact with students.” Austin’s class was one of them, Hartlyn said.

The report also found a “strikingly high” percentage of cases in Nyang’oro’s classes in which temporary grades were converted to permanent ones. Several other faculty said they had not authorized grade changes for students.

Independent study courses

While the investigation casts no blame on the athletic department, information obtained by The N&O showed the department’s independent study courses were popular with football players, and that Nyang’oro was often teaching them. Such courses have drawn suspicion in athletic circles because they do not require attendance and often allow students to produce a paper at the end of the course. Athletic programs have gotten into trouble at other universities after questions surfaced as to whether the athletes were doing actual academic work.

Athletic advisers said Nyang’oro was a favored professor, not because he made it easy for athletes to pass, but because he was willing to work with them in getting the classes they needed. But his relationship with the athletic department came under question when he hired a sports agent – a former athletic department academic adviser and adjunct professor – to teach a summer class last year while the NCAA was investigating the football team for allowing other agents and their runners to have too much access to players.

Nyang’oro’s credentials

Nyang’oro has taught at UNC-CH since 1984, and his résumé lists two teaching honors – one from undergraduate students for the 1990-91 academic year, and the outstanding faculty award from the Class of 2000 – and four pages of published books and articles.

Nyang’oro has a law degree from Duke University, and masters and doctoral degrees from Miami University of Ohio, according to his résumé. He received his bachelor’s degree from a university in Tanzania.

He could not be immediately reached for comment. His final salary is $159,249 a year.

The university also reviewed independent study courses across the College of Arts & Sciences, which includes the African studies department. That report did not find misconduct, but it made several suggestions for more accountability in tracking independent study classes and making sure professors are actively engaged with the students taking them.

The African studies department will have strict requirements for those courses. They will only be open to juniors and seniors, and only if they carry a 3.0 grade point average.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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