Like Wade Hargrove, chairman of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees, I read the recent report of academic fraud at my alma mater with a mixture of disappointment and dismay and outrage. These feelings were compounded by the fact that I am a proud graduate of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, which was the target of the probe.
When I entered college I was intent on majoring in philosophy and European history. I knew some German and studied a bit of ancient Greek with an eye toward graduate work examining currents in Continental thought. But as I delved deeper into my studies I realized that many of the best scholars who were producing some of the most exciting research worked in the field of black studies. After a few classes the prolific professors and academic rigor of the African and Afro-American Studies Department persuaded me to change my focus.
It is surreal to read a portrayal of my department that breaks so radically from the experience of most graduates. In African and Afro-American Studies I was challenged and mentored. I was alerted to academic conferences and encouraged to attend. I was urged to submit original research papers to scholarly journals. And on several occasions I was invited to dinner with leading historians from places such as Germany or Japan who specialized in the surprising connections between their nations and black America. It was a heady time.
It also is difficult to fathom the abuses described in the report occurring in my classes. To pass off a plagiarized paper to Professor Kenneth Janken one would first have to find a piece of writing with which he is not familiar. That is no small task. And there were many times when I turned in a 10 page paper to Professor Reginald Hildebrand and received 11 pages in comments, questions and corrections. Absentee teachers they were not.
The most painful part of UNC’s academic fraud investigation is that a single person, former department chair Julius Nyang’oro, has tarnished the reputation of an entire academic unit of the university. And the report makes this point clear: no other professors or instructors were involved in the scandal.
The other tragedy is that like the Trojan Paris looking for the weak heel of Achilles, there are those who will use one man’s transgressions to attack the entire enterprise of black studies. These questioners rarely jab at other centers of interdisciplinary scholarship such as European or Security Studies. But the truth is without bringing together lines of research from across the academy we would not have books that mix history and memoir like Tim Tyson’s “Blood Done Sign My Name,” or works that complicate our understanding of medical ethics like Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” or nuanced examinations of our heroes like Henry Wiencek’s “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.”
While not all of these writers work in African-American studies, they all owe a debt to the field.
I did not often encounter Julius Nyang’oro during my days at UNC (apparently, neither did his students). But if his careless, and possibly criminal, actions make a single student doubt the value of a degree in African and Afro-American Studies then it will be difficult for me to forgive his sins. I can promise this to any young scholar who engages with my former professors: You are tapping a rich vein of knowledge. Indeed, for any ability I possess to reason or write today, much of the credit is due to my undergraduate department. Only the mistakes have been mine.
Adam Linker is with the N.C. Justice Center.