UNC-Chapel Hill holds surprise inspections of classes to make sure they’re real

jstancill@newsobserver.comFebruary 27, 2013 

  • Monitoring classes at UNC-CH

    In advance of a visit this spring from a review team sent by the university’s accreditor, administrators have demanded extensive data collection to prove the validity of thousands of courses, including:

    • Collecting syllabi for all courses to prove compliance with a new university policy requiring that such documents be produced. A syllabus is an outline of assignments and course requirements. • Conducting checks of classes to make sure they are meeting as scheduled. In large academic units, administrators are allowed to perform the checks on a random sample of classes. Faculty were informed that the checks would happen, but not when or how often.

— Surprise inspections have been taking place across the UNC-Chapel Hill campus in recent days as administrators seek to prove that students and faculty are, indeed, meeting for their scheduled classes.

Administrators have been working against the clock to account for courses before a visit this spring by an outside review team. The reviewers are expected to prepare a report for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges – the regional accrediting agency that monitors campuses for academic quality. The SACS board could decide in June whether to sanction the university for the academic fraud scandal that has unfolded in the past couple of years.

To prove the legitimacy of classes, administrators have fanned out to hundreds of classrooms to verify that students and professors are present. Some departments even discussed bringing in photographers to document classes, according to one professor, Lew Margolis, a faculty member in public health.

While many accepted the mass monitoring effort as a necessary step in appeasing the university’s accreditors, others were incredulous.

“It was more than irritating,” said Margolis. “As I spoke to some colleagues about it, they looked at me and said, ‘This is ridiculous. What the heck’s going on here?’ ”

Margolis was prompted to write a blog for WCHL radio’s website in which he suggested that there is no system, short of George Orwell’s Big Brother screens in each classroom, that could really document students’ education. And, he pondered, what about all the informal time outside of class, when students are learning and teachers are teaching?

The unusual spot checks are the latest fallout from an academic fraud scandal that has dealt a blow to UNC-CH’s reputation. In December, a review by former Gov. Jim Martin and the Baker Tilly consulting firm found more than 200 African and Afro-American Studies classes with little or no instruction dating back to the late 1990s. Among the irregularities were no-show classes, poorly supervised independent studies, and hundreds of unauthorized grade changes. Athletes accounted for 45 percent of the enrollments in the bogus classes in a 10-year period, the review found.

The problems caught the eye of SACS, the accrediting agency, whose president, Belle Wheelan, sent a strongly worded letter in January to UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp, saying that the university had not provided sufficient evidence that it had addressed breaches in academic integrity.

Now it appears that university leaders are taking the documentation effort seriously.

‘We need a report’

Deans have been asked to collect all class syllabi from professors, showing outlines of assignments and course requirements. In a Feb. 19 memo, Bruce Carney, executive vice chancellor and provost, wrote to deans saying they had a short timeline to complete their monitoring reports.

“We need a report from you on the progress of checks of lecture and other courses that were intended to meet on a regular basis with an instructor,” Carney wrote. “What method was used? How many classes were surveyed? What were the results? If a class was not underway at the expected time, we need a detailed explanation.”

In the College of Arts and Sciences, there were too many classes to visit one by one, so administrators checked a random sample of 187 courses out of 2,300 lectures, labs and discussion sections offered this semester. A few were meeting in alternate locations, but only one could not be accounted for. That one will be re-checked this week, spokeswoman Dee Reid said.

Looking in windows

At the School of Education, administrators checked on more than 80 classes. Deborah Eaker-Rich, associate dean and chief academic officer, visited many of those. A few classes could not be located, she said, but it turned out they had valid reasons. One was meeting at an art gallery, and other courses in educational leadership were attending an area school board meeting. Everyone else, she said, was in the appointed place.

“I tried to do it in a very nondisruptive way,” Eaker-Rich said of her checks. “Our building has windows on the doors, so if the doors were closed, I could just look in and say, ‘OK, there’s Dr. So-and-So, and there are approximately 25 students in there and obviously they’re doing something.’ ”

With each stop, she documented the time and date and initialed her visit.

George Noblit, an education professor whose two classes were visited, said students thought it was funny.

“They clearly saw this as being connected to the scandal,” he said. “So the nice thing about our associate dean introducing herself and explaining it, it became kind of a teachable moment about the politics of higher ed.”

Noblit said he took it in stride because the education school is used to extensive monitoring for its own accrediting organizations.

“It does seem a little overboard, but it does seem to me that it is in response to outside pressures that are real,” he said. “Clearly we cannot ignore our accrediting agencies.”

‘I’m an old reporter’

In the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Dean Susan King, a self-described data nut, said the spot checks were a useful exercise. She and her staff checked 200 classes over a one-week period.

They found only three that didn’t meet, but professors later confirmed that they had conducted class in other locations, including Carrboro Town Hall and a video shoot for a multimedia assignment.

“I’m an old reporter,” she said. “So you go and check and document. That’s what reporters do. I thought it was not a bad process.”

Margolis wrote in his blog that many faculty were perturbed that the academic operation was under such scrutiny for what many perceive to be an athletics scandal.

“I do not believe that any of these credit-hour monitoring proposals would have seen the light of day had there not been exasperation about the disconnect between big time college sports and the mission of universities,” he wrote. “There may be more than one reason to create a fake class, but at the very top of the list, with a large gap between number one and number two, is the need to keep revenue-generating athletes eligible. I don’t think that we fake classes in musicology or modern European history or molecular chemistry, because faculty across the galaxy of universities hold one another accountable.”

Noblit said faculty are generally worried about how the university will sort out its relationship to what he called the “industry” of the athletics operation. But for now, he said, people want to satisfy the accreditors and get a clean bill of health.

“If we need to lay to rest this belief that we’re not here doing our job,” Noblit said, “then let’s get that done.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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