UNC-CH trustees question how academic fraud happened

UNC-CH trustees grapple with findings of academic fraud

jstancill@newsobserver.com May 25, 2012 

  • New guidelines Changes to independent study courses at UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences: • They now require learning contracts that spell out assignments, grading information and meetings with professor. Any independent study course has to be approved by a department chair or dean. • Faculty members are limited to two independent study students per semester or summer session. • Courses meant to be seminars or in lecture format should not be converted to independent study. • Courses should be numbered according to a standard system.

— UNC-Chapel Hill trustees, briefed Thursday on academic fraud uncovered in the African and Afro-American Studies department, asked pointed questions about accountability in the university’s academic operations. And they heard about new procedures and steps aimed at preventing future irregularities.

Board of Trustees Chairman Wade Hargrove described the findings in UNC-CH’s recent internal investigation as “major indiscretions that raise serious questions of unprofessional and unethical conduct.”

Hargrove said he read the report with a mixture of “disappointment and dismay and outrage.”

“Academic freedom is not to be confused with academic irresponsibility or academic fraud,” Hargrove said. “We all know the difference.”

New rules will now govern independent study courses, and a review of teaching assignments will be conducted annually.

Chancellor Holden Thorp called the fraud a painful chapter.

“I know that you’re all as deeply troubled as I am, as disturbed as I am and as angry as I am that these things could have happened,” he told trustees. “They are completely at odds with what we stand for as an institution.”

The internal review, released this month, revealed 54 classes within the department in which there was little or no indication of instruction. The review also found cases of unauthorized grade changes and forged faculty signatures.

Problems were mostly linked to two employees, the report said. Julius Nyang’oro, a professor and former department chairman, is retiring effective July 1. Another staff member retired in 2009 and declined to cooperate with the UNC-CH probe.

The university’s review covered 2007-2011 and showed that Nyang’oro was the instructor of record for 45 of the 54 suspect classes.

The State Bureau of Investigation is probing the situation to determine what, if any, criminal violations occurred.

Undetected for years

On Thursday, trustee Peter Grauer asked how courses with little or no supervision from professors could have gone unnoticed for years.

“That’s a good question, and I understand the concern,” said Karen Gil, dean of the College of Art and Sciences. “There are checks and balances all over the system, but in this case they did not detect the problems. There were no student complaints about these courses.”

Gil said the dean’s office relies on department chairs to set up course schedules and assign faculty. The College of Arts and Sciences has 45 academic departments with 10,000 course sections.

“It doesn’t make it acceptable that this happened, but it just shows what a complex undertaking it is – and in an environment where we’re always being pressed to spend less on administration,” said Thorp, who himself was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for a year, from July 1, 2007, until he became chancellor in 2008.

A review of teaching assignments in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 turned up no problems in other departments, Gil said. Such a review will now take place each year, she added.

The academic fraud investigation started last summer after The News & Observer obtained a partial academic transcript of former football player Marvin Austin that showed he had taken an upper level African studies class in summer 2007 and received a B-plus. He took the class, taught by Nyang’oro, before he took four introductory classes that included remedial writing in his first full semester.

Hard to piece together

The African and Afro-American Studies review took nine months and was difficult to piece together, said William Andrews, a senior associate dean who was one of the investigators. Lax oversight in the department was part of the problem in reconstructing what happened, according to the report.

“It’s sort of like putting together a 16,000-piece puzzle, but you don’t know what the picture is,” Andrews said.

When asked by one trustee why the review covered only four years, Andrews said it was clear that many of the problems ended with the 2009 retirement of the department’s longtime administrator, Debbie Crowder. Four years of data revealed issues linked only to Nyang’oro and Crowder, Andrews said, and there was no evidence to indicate others would have been involved even if the probe had covered a longer period.

Bobbi Owen, senior associate dean for undergraduate education, said it is hard to know why students ended up in any particular course. The review showed that athletes and non-athletes were enrolled in the aberrant courses, though 39 percent of those in the 54 suspect classes were football and basketball players.

“Word of mouth is potent,” she said. “Students drift to places where they understand they will be accommodated.”

Under the new independent study rules, faculty members will be limited to overseeing only two independent study students at a time, and each course must involve an individual contract to spell out assignments, expectations and contact time with faculty. In addition, lectures and seminars should not be converted into independent study courses, as had occurred in the African and Afro-American Studies department.

A department chair or dean has to sign off on an independent study course. In addition, all grade change forms are being reviewed in the associate dean’s office.

“We want all of our students to succeed,” Gil said. “We want them all to have access to the best educational opportunities that will help them meet their academic goals. I believe that the new policies and practices that have been put in place will make us stronger moving forward.”

Thorp said he hopes the investigation will send a strong message that the university takes its academic reputation seriously.

“I’m chancellor at this university, but I’ve been a student and a faculty member, and I’m still a faculty member,” he said. “These findings are a kick in the gut to those of us who take great pride in what we do here.”

Staff writer Dan Kane contributed to this report.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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