Point of View

The many maddening failures of the Martin report

December 21, 2012 

Administrators in Chapel Hill are breathing a huge sigh of relief today. Former Gov. Jim Martin, in his long-awaited report on the “academic anomalies” that have caused such consternation in our community since 2011, dramatically announced at the recent meeting of UNC’s Board of Trustees that the pattern of abuse uncovered in recent months “was not an athletic scandal” but, rather, an isolated academic one.

He thereby confirmed UNC’s official interpretation of events.

In truth, Martin’s conclusions rest on disappointingly incomplete data and show a surprising bias. The auditing firm of Baker-Tilly certainly crunched a lot of numbers on course registrations and grade changes. And, happily, it reported that it had detected no fraudulent behavior by any faculty member other than Julius Nyang’oro, the former chair of the African and Afro-American studies department. That is good news.

But Martin relies heavily on the testimony of athletics and other officials who had interests to protect. He ignores many key issues and makes questionable assertions on the basis of little or no evidence. The arguments are often weak or unsupported.

Repeatedly, for example, Martin asserts such things as “the percentage of student-athletes enrolled in Type 2 Lecture Course Sections was consistent with the percentage of student-athletes enrolled in all courses offered by the Department” of Afri/Afam, and yet he provides no numbers at all to back his claims.

Nor does he acknowledge that the deceptive term “student-athlete,” which he uses with ironclad consistency, masks sport-specific behaviors that might provide telling clues about the functioning of the athletic support system. (Remarkably, he tells us nothing at all about team course registrations.) He shows little curiosity about the essence of academic counseling for athletes (the ASPSA) and the imperatives that drive it. His only interest, it seems, is to exonerate athletics personnel from responsibility for any academic shenanigans.

The Martin report fully deserves a point-by-point rebuttal, but let me focus my remarks on a subject I know well: the curricular changes of 2006.

Martin claims that independent studies enrollments in Afri/Afam dropped after 2006 because the university renumbered its courses that year “to increase the number of course offerings to its students.” With so many more courses to choose from, he surmises, there was a lessened need to use independent studies “to fulfill a degree requirement.”

I was the associate dean for undergraduate curricula between 2004 and 2008; I was in charge of the renumbering project to which he alludes. That project had nothing whatever to do with increasing course offerings. Its purpose was to broaden the range of numbers available for courses already in existence.

If Martin had wanted to know why Afri/Afam suffered a general decline in enrollments in 2007, he might have asked me. The department suffered from such notoriously bad management that it – alone among all departments in the College of Arts and Sciences – had neglected to submit most of its courses for consideration for the General Education curriculum. Consequently, students found Afri/Afam courses less attractive because they satisfied fewer requirements.

That the chair of the department could be so negligent, so inattentive to broad departmental interests in 2005-2006, of course directly contradicts Martin’s evidence-free speculation that the whole “paper” course scam reflected only his desire to boost departmental enrollments and win new faculty positions. The very idea that the chair would have hoped to draw attention to his own bloated enrollment figures, along with the fraudulent strategies that underlay them, runs against common sense.

On this as on so many other issues treated in his report, Martin chose to rely on conveniently packaged excuses rather than the insights of hard-headed critics who knew which questions needed asking. (After an initial interview, the investigative team never again sought my input; Mary Willingham’s concerns are brushed aside with false admissions statistics.)

One might well conclude that Martin ventured his own speculations and leaned on the testimony that supported them because he wanted to avoid at all costs the explanation staring him in the face: Independent studies and “paper” courses were created, and made available to many non-athletes, for the purpose of helping athletes boost their GPAs under the guise of participation in a legitimate curriculum.

Martin says he was “unable to discern a clear motive” for fraud. Some would say that he was unwilling to acknowledge the most obvious one.

Jay M. Smith is professor of history and former associate dean for Undergraduate Curricula in the College of Arts and Sciences

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