Martin's probe at UNC focuses on no-show classes

dkane@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2012 

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Former Governor Jim Martin

CHRIS KEANE — special to the Observer

A typical suggestion for college students looking for easy classes is to go visit a fraternity.

Former Gov. Jim Martin did just that recently as part of a probe he’s leading into academic irregularities at UNC-Chapel Hill, except he wanted to know if the fraternity brothers had been aware of classes that didn’t meet.

They knew where to find plenty of easy classes in many departments, Martin said Tuesday.

“But they said they never heard of a course that was a lecture course that didn’t meet. It was there. It was there in plain sight, but it wasn’t seen.”

Martin is now nearly two months into a quest handed to him by Chancellor Holden Thorp to dig deeper into an academic fraud case that has drawn national attention, largely because of its connections to athletics. An internal review of the past four years found 54 such no-show classes that were filled predominantly with athletes, with the only requirement that a paper be turned in at the end.

Martin, governor from 1985 to 1992, is a former chemistry professor at Davidson with a Ph.D from Princeton. He met with News & Observer reporters, editors and editorial writers Tuesday to explain the work he and a national accounting firm, Baker Tilly, are performing.

Much of it is a data-heavy analysis of courses and grades that he expects will show clustering of athletes and other groups of students around certain classes or professors, and might show when the no-show classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies began. He also suggested he’ll be touching on grade inflation across the university.

Thorp has said that Martin is free to look anywhere within the university to get answers. But Martin said he doesn’t view his job as looking for NCAA violations or identifying easy classes that do meet; the latter, he said, can be found on nearly any campus across the country. He also doesn’t think he will have the time to conduct a sweep of course work turned in by athletes to find out how prevalent plagiarism is.

“We are looking to see if we can find when (the no-show classes) began and if other departments have had similar or the same kinds of mischief,” Martin said.

‘Don’t worry about that’

He said so far his probe, one of four looking at the academic fraud, has included interviews with nearly 30 individuals, including academic support staff for athletes and several former players. He said they all knew about the no-show classes, and some knew they were easy. But they did not suspect the classes to be a problem.

Martin faults the classes for not challenging the students, and for being advertised as lecture courses when they weren’t.

“I haven’t found anyone that knew the courses were phony,” Martin said.

He said some academic staff at the time did question the “large numbers” of athletes enrolled in independent studies, including freshmen. Martin said such studies, which do not require class time, should only be open to students majoring in that field or with enough coursework that they have had “some mastery” of the subject.

“That question was asked ... and the answer was, ‘Don’t worry about that, the faculty have wide latitude as to how they teach a course,’ Martin said.

Martin suggested that the university contained its previous investigation into academic fraud to the years 2007-2011 because that was the time that former football coach Butch Davis was at the university. Davis was fired last year after an NCAA probe into improper benefits to football players from agents and improper academic help from a tutor.

Martin said once the data analysis is in hand, he expects to pull more internal correspondence and other records to try to understand what was happening. He said he has not reached out to the former chairman of the African studies department, Julius Nyang’oro, or to the department’s former manager, Deborah Crowder, whom university officials have said are the only two culpable in the academic fraud. Martin said he doesn’t expect them to talk.

Martin initially was to produce a report by last week, but he said the task has proven to be more challenging.

“Last week we were thinking the end of the month,” he said, “but I will believe it when I see it.”

Kane: 919-829-4861

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