Degrees at risk for UNC students who took fraudulent classes

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 7, 2013 

— There’s been no mad rush by UNC-Chapel Hill students and alumni to sign up for free make-up classes to replace fraudulent ones they took in the African and Afro-American Studies department.

So far, only one student has enrolled in a make-up course and only one alumnus has inquired about the possibility, university officials said.

Forty-six people are at risk of not graduating unless they complete an extra course, and only one has enrolled at this point, UNC spokeswoman Dee Reid said.

“We don’t know the others’ intentions; they may be planning to pursue their degree requirements over an extended period of time, as some former students do,” she wrote in an email response.

Reid said she didn’t know what year of study the 46 affected students are in or how many of them are athletes. They have the option of taking a course, sitting for a special exam or presenting prior work to be evaluated by faculty. The three options will be available to the students as long as they are pursuing a degree, Reid said.

The offer of free courses was part of an arrangement the university made with its accrediting body, the Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges. It’s an effort to “make whole” the academic degrees of 384 students and alumni who took 39 fraudulent classes between 1997 and 2009 in the African and Afro-American Studies department then chaired by Julius Nyang’oro.

In June, the commission’s board voted to accept UNC-CH’s plan to offer the classes, choosing to monitor the university in the coming months rather than impose a sanction. The accrediting body had sent a team to the university early this year to review the problems.

A sanction such as a warning or probation would have been a blow to the university, already bruised from athletic and academic scandals in the past few years. Such penalties can be a prelude to revoked accreditation and a loss of federal funds.

The suspect courses in the African and Afro-American Studies department were disproportionately enrolled with athletes. The university has blamed the fraud on the former department chairman, Nyang’oro, and a former department manager, Debbie Crowder. They no longer work for the university.

In all, 80 students and 304 alumni were identified as having taken so-called “Type 1” lecture classes in which the instructor denied teaching or signing the grade roll, or which the department chairman said had not been taught.

Alumni don’t have to retake

There is no mandate for the 304 alumni to return to campus for a do-over. Because university policy requires that transcripts are sealed one year after graduation, there would be no way to award credit or a grade for a new class.

Of the 80 students, 34 were not affected, the university said, either because they didn’t need the course to graduate, didn’t get credit for the African Studies class or transferred to another institution.

The 46 remaining students were sent certified letters May 14 from Karen Gil, dean of UNC-CH’s College of Arts and Sciences. The generic letter did not include an explanation of the previous fraudulent classes or offer an apology. It instructed students to make an appointment with an adviser but did not explain the problem with their path toward a degree.

The letter said, in part: “Graduating from college is an important step to fulfilling your ambitions. I am pleased to learn that you are working on the remaining requirements for a B.A. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”

Students were directed to Lee May, associate dean and director of the academic advising program. “She will be sure you are aware of your remaining requirements and good strategies for completing them,” Gil’s letter said.

Reid said neither Gil nor other administrators at the College of Arts and Sciences were available for comment.

University to cover cost

Former Chancellor Holden Thorp sent an email to 172,000 alumni and parents about the SACS decision and directed them to a question-and-answer website. Of the “Type 1” courses, the Q-and-A said: “The University does not believe that credit was awarded for courses in which students did no work or that degrees were awarded to students who did not earn them.”

The university has said it would cover the cost of the extra courses and textbooks with private money.

Initially, UNC-CH planned to count the suspect classes toward graduation credit for students.

The SACS review panel wasn’t on board with that idea. “This decision by the institution calls into question the academic integrity of the degrees that may be awarded to these currently enrolled students,” the SACS committee wrote in its report after the April visit.

To prepare for the team’s visit to Chapel Hill, academic deans and department heads were directed to do spot checks of classes to make sure they were meeting as scheduled.

That is likely to continue. The university is expected to submit a report to SACS next April, documenting its progress toward making the degrees whole.

Mike Johnson, senior vice president and chief of staff at SACS Commission on Colleges, said the board will consider UNC-CH’s case in June.

“The numbers may change by then,” he said. “It depends on whether or not it’s perceived as a good faith effort. You can’t force students to do something.”

The State Bureau of Investigation is still looking into possible criminal conduct related to the academic fraud. And 46 students may not get their diplomas.

“The University will not allow any students who have not yet graduated to use a ‘Type 1’ class taken in the past to fulfill their remaining undergraduate degree requirements,” Reid’s email said.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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