UNC panel begins review of academic fraud case

Board of Governors panel assessing Chapel Hill campus’s probe

jstancill@newsobserver.comJuly 21, 2012 

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Julius Nyang'oro

HARRY LYNCH — Harry Lynch

— A five-member UNC Board of Governors panel began its review Friday of UNC-Chapel Hill’s investigation of academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies department.

The panel is expected to spend several months examining the campus review of dozens of classes, heavily enrolled with athletes, in which little or no faculty supervision took place.

The first order of business was a charge to the panel by UNC system President Tom Ross, who formed the group in June. He said the problems at UNC-CH were “deplorable, intolerable and are completely contrary to everything for which this university stands.”

He said the issues, and ongoing media coverage, had taken a toll on the reputation of the campus and on the university system as a whole. Ross emphasized that university officials had worked hard to get to the root of the problems.

“I’m extremely troubled by the suggestion that we haven’t taken this seriously, that nobody has done anything about it or that campus officials, the Board of Trustees or the Board of Governors have perhaps just looked the other way, because that is simply not true,” he said.

Ross told the committee to review and assess both the internal investigation on the Chapel Hill campus and the remedies put in place to prevent a recurrence.

The panel met in closed session twice Friday to discuss confidential information. It also heard oral reports from faculty, deans and the registrar about what was uncovered and what the university has done about it.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans, who was elected in June, urged the panel to ask lots of questions.

“It is time for us to rise to the occasion and resolve this saga, whether the solutions are easy or whether they are difficult,” Hans said. “If there is any question about competing priorities during this review, I urge you, as I believe you will, to come down on the side of integrity, academic rigor and accountability.”

Probing the probe

Panel members did ask questions. One was why the investigation only covered four years – 2007 to 2011. Jonathan Hartlyn, senior associate dean who helped conduct the probe, said it would have been difficult to reconstruct events prior to 2007 because of incomplete data and people’s fading memory of events.

Asked whether the problems may have occurred before 2007, Hartlyn said there was no way to know. “We suspect at least some of them may have,” he said.

UNC-CH officials said their investigations showed that the trouble was confined to the African and Afro-American Studies department and that two people were implicated – the professor at the center of the fraud investigation, former department Chairman Julius Nyang’oro, who recently retired, and Debbie Crowder, a former department office manager who retired in 2009 and declined to be interviewed by campus officials.

Panel members zeroed in on Nyang’oro’s 2011 summer class in which 18 football players and one former player were enrolled.

“Do you happen to know how those 18 students knew about the course?” asked Walter Davenport, a panel member from Raleigh.

Jan Yopp, dean of UNC-CH’s Summer School, said she didn’t know, but that Nyang’oro had contacted her the first day of the second summer session and said he had about 20 students from the department who needed the course to graduate. Faculty often know when there is demand for a certain course because students request it, she said, so that wasn’t unusual.

“He was the department chair,” she said. “I felt like he probably had a good idea of what students in his department needed.”

Counseling changes

Bobbi Owen, senior associate dean for undergraduate education, said academic counselors assigned to student athletes had in the past recommended classes to students – a practice that she said is now forbidden. In the case of Nyang’oro’s summer class, counselors let student-athletes know there was space available and helped register them. Now. she said, students must register themselves. Academic counselors are there to support them but are told not to direct athletes to specific courses, majors or areas of study.

Paper grade forms, which were found to have forged signatures, are also a thing of the past. A new, automated grade database will help the university monitor grading practices, courses and teaching assignments. That will allow officials to more easily spot outliers, said Chris Derickson, assistant provost and registrar.

UNC-CH trustee Chairman Wade Hargrove and UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp attended the start of the meeting.

Thorp defended the decision to push Nyang’oro to early retirement rather than to fire him. Dismissal would have meant lengthy appeals, during which Nyang’oro would have been entitled to full pay. Retirement was a more expedient way to separate Nyang’oro from the university, Thorp said.

Nyang’oro has not spoken publicly about the situation. The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into whether there was criminal conduct associated with the fraud.

‘Disturbed and angry’

This week, Thorp said, the campus received a letter from its accreditation agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, accepting the university’s five-year interim report to the association with no issues. That is a sign that SACS approves of the university’s handling of the situation, he said.

“Throughout this ordeal, we have asked hard questions, and we have found answers that are humiliating and painful for a university built on a commitment to academic excellence,” Thorp told the panel. “And I am as disturbed and angry about it as anyone. What happened was wrong. There is no excuse and no justification for it. As chancellor, I take responsibility for it, and I also take responsibility for cleaning it up and making sure it never happens again.”

Lou Bissette, a board member from Asheville who chairs the panel, said the group hopes to report its findings to the full board in October. Next, the panel will begin to review documents and transcripts of interviews generated during the campus investigation.

“In my own mind, I think they’ve made a very good effort, but this is a big and very serious problem,” Bissette said. “We want to be sure there are no gaps. And if there are gaps, we point those out so they can go back and rectify that.”

Thorp said the university has to find the right balance between athletics and academics – a difficult task.

“We can do it,” he said. “We have to get better, and we will.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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