UNC reluctant to dig deeper on scandal

News from studentprompts no action

dkane@newsobserver.comAugust 10, 2012 

Last month, just as a special UNC Board of Governors panel began its review of academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill, Chancellor Holden Thorp promised full cooperation with it and with others trying to learn what went wrong.

“We welcome the involvement of the Board of Governors panel, our trustees, our faculty and others who care about the university,” Thorp said.

Yet the university has shown little interest in digging into two separate matters brought to its attention by The News & Observer that could show that the scandal involving no-show classes goes back several years beyond what the university has confirmed.

Nearly a year ago, as the problems were starting to emerge, The N&O asked questions about a fall 2005 class offered by Julius Nyang’oro, the longtime chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department, that may never have been held.

Two weeks ago, The N&O, seeking information about the class, gave the university the name of a former student in that class and offered emails from that person backing up his claim that the class did not meet.

Nancy Davis, a university spokeswoman, repeatedly said officials would not investigate unless the former student came to them. But late Friday afternoon, she revised the university’s position in an email that said: “The former student’s experience was consistent with the patterns we identified in our review.” She declined to provide further explanation.

Two months ago, a reporter showed university officials what is characterized on UNC-CH’s website as a “test transcript” developed to help students and advisers use a computer program that tells them what courses a student still needs to graduate. The test transcript, which dates back to 2001, has several characteristics that are consistent with the issues raised by the academic scandal.

UNC officials say it is a made-up transcript, but they have declined to look at records to be certain the transcript was not lifted in whole or in part from a real student’s academic record.

The lack of investigation into these and other matters raises questions about whether the university is seeking information beyond what it has already reported: 54 classes within the department in which there was little or no instruction, from 2007 to 2011, and dozens of independent studies during that period in which there’s little evidence of supervision of the work students were asked to perform.

Jay Smith, a UNC history professor and one of the leading voices for a deeper investigation, said the university should be digging into both matters because they may shed more light on how long the academic fraud took place and who was intended to benefit from it.

“My sense of it, and it’s only a sense,” he said, “is that they really want to keep this episode to the Butch Davis era, and conveniently also confined to the football team.”

Davis is the former football coach hired in 2006 to rebuild the program. He was fired after an NCAA investigation launched two years ago that found players had received improper benefits from agents and their go-betweens, and improper help from a tutor.

That investigation did not uncover the academic fraud within the African studies department. Davis, who was fired last year without cause and paid the remaining $2.7 million on his contract, has said through his attorney that he knew nothing about the no-show classes and did not know Nyang’oro.

‘Come see me’

The fall 2005 class shows such classes were being offered a year before Davis arrived and before the buildup of the football program that eventually got it in trouble with the NCAA.

The former student was not an athlete. He asked not to be identified in a news story because he did not want to make trouble for the university, but he provided emails that show he enrolled in the class because it was originally listed in registration records with a Friday afternoon time, which fit his schedule.

But he later discovered there was no class time or classroom listed, so he emailed Nyang’oro.

“You need to come see me,” Nyang’oro replied in an email. He gave the student his office location.

The former student said that at that meeting, Nyang’oro told him there would be no class and assigned him a research paper. The former student said he worked hard on a 20-page paper and received an A-minus. As of Friday afternoon, UNC-CH officials had not contacted him about the class.

A ‘test transcript’

The 2001 test transcript lists grades and an SAT score for what would presumably be a fictional student.

That student has an SAT score of 870, well below the 1230 average SAT score for UNC-CH students back then, and is entering his senior year with a grade-point-average just over 2.0.

The student is listed as an African and Afro-American studies major who has completed a dozen classes in that department. The student was carrying a 2.6 GPA in those classes. It also shows the student was exempt from taking a physical fitness class. Such an exemption is typically granted to athletes.

According to the transcript, the student pulls grades of B or better on courses shown to be no-show classes in the university’s review. The transcript shows an A, for example, in a course known as AFAM Seminar. That class pops up four times as a no-show class in UNC’s review.

The student took three independent studies, receiving B’s or better, and was registered for a fourth.

One of the reforms in the wake of the scandal is a stricter limit on independent studies and who can take them. Today, only juniors and seniors majoring in degrees within that department can take them, and must have a B average or better before they can enroll.

The transcript also shows that the student only took a full slate of five courses in one fall semester. The remaining spring and fall semesters, the student took four courses. To keep on track, the student took a class or two in the summer semesters.

UNC-CH records show that athletes made up nearly two-thirds of the enrollments in the 54 no-show classes. Football players made up the greatest number of enrollments within that group, but basketball players had also enrolled. In two of the classes, the sole enrollee was a basketball player.

‘Freudian slip’

Smith, the history professor, said even if the transcript is proven to be a mock-up, it is surprising someone would draw up one that casts the African studies department in such a poor light, and one that so uncannily reflects the current academic scandal.

“It’s either a real transcript, or it is a startling Freudian slip that reveals the reality of the system,” he said.

Neither current UNC Registrar Chris Derickson nor the registrar at the time of the transcript’s making, David Lanier, thinks the transcript reflects an actual student. Lanier questioned why a transcript representing an athlete would be drawn up, since they have special academic counselors assigned to them.

Derickson, who became registrar in 2010, said there were many test transcripts pulled together over the years as the university developed the computer program that tracks progress toward a college degree. He provided a few more recent ones; they were far less coherent than the 2001 transcript, with numerous degree changes, transferred credits from other universities and academic histories that reflected degrees already obtained.

One official showing interest in the fall 2005 class and the 2001 transcript is Peter Hans, recently elected chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

“I would like to share this with the members of the review panel and ask them to look at it,” he said. “Maybe there’s a good explanation, but we need to ask those questions.”

Kane: 919-829-4861

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