Since at least the early 1990s, UNC-Chapel Hill sought to limit the number of “special studies” undergraduate students could take toward their degrees. The limit was the equivalent of four such classes – a small minority of the courses needed for graduation.
Those classes usually meant independent studies, which involved meetings with a professor, required reading, and a paper due at the end.
But a second type of independent study evolved into a scandal at UNC: classes in the former African and Afro-American studies department advertised as lectures that never met and required only a paper at the end. More details that have emerged about the no-show classes provide evidence that several athletes in men’s basketball and football had taken far more of the two types of independent study classes than the rules would allow.
As Kenneth Wainstein prepares to deliver the results of the latest investigation into the scandal on Wednesday, the heavy use in no-show classes by athletes raises a key question: Were they created to help athletes – and perhaps other students – get around the four-class limit?
Five members of the 2005 championship basketball team accounted for at least 52 classes that were either accurately characterized as independent study or were identified as confirmed or suspected no-show classes, according to enrollment data provided by Mary Willlingham, a former learning specialist for UNC athletes who became a whistleblower. That averages out to 10 classes per athlete.
Meanwhile, a transcript for Julius Peppers, who played football and basketball at UNC until 2001, listed nine independent studies or no-show classes.
Richard Cramer was a longtime sociology professor and spent six years as associate dean for UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences. One of his jobs for the college for the past dozen years as a part-time employee included checking the transcripts of students close to graduation to make sure they had met various academic requirements.
That included checking the number of independent studies taken. But he said the no-show classes at the heart of the academic scandal would have escaped detection because they looked like lecture-style classes.
“We wouldn’t know,” said Cramer, who retired last summer after his position was cut. “We wouldn’t ask unless somebody told us.”
UNC officials have declined to explain the independent studies limit, other than noting it was in a report the university produced in the wake of the scandal. That 2012 report, however, did not identify a problem with independent studies within the AFAM department exceeding enrollment limits. The News & Observer first cited the limit in a June article about the 2005 men’s basketball team.
Joel Curran, a UNC spokesman, said Monday that he expects Wainstein to address questions about independent studies in his report. Wainstein said he could not comment on the independent studies limit or his report until Wednesday.
Why independent study?
The university’s undergraduate bulletins, which explain the university’s academic requirements to students, weren’t a model of clarity when it came to independent studies.
For many years, the bulletins identified them as “correspondence courses” that on-campus students couldn’t take without a dean’s approval. They could be taken at any time, and students had up to nine months to complete them. Academically ineligible students were encouraged to take them, and could take up to 30 credit hours.
During those years, the four-class limit was on “special studies.” They weren’t specifically called independent studies until the start of the 2006-07 academic year. Since that time, the correspondence courses have been referred to as “self-paced” courses.
Higher education experts outside of UNC say limits on the number of independent studies students can take aren’t surprising. But the reasons for them vary.
Jason Johnson, an education professor and associate dean for undergraduate affairs at the University of Washington, said most universities aren’t worried about students abusing independent studies. They are more concerned about making sure students graduate on time. Students enrolling in too many independent studies could lengthen their stays by not fulfilling core requirements that reflect the university’s commitment to providing a well-rounded education.
“Universities are always very concerned about a student’s academic progress and their movement through the curriculum,” Johnson said.
Independent studies risks
There’s another financial incentive to limit independent studies: They are among the most expensive a college can offer, because they represent a 1-to-1 student-to-professor ratio, as opposed to a professor teaching 20 or more students in a classroom.
Two independent studies scandals over the past decade at the University of Michigan and Auburn University have alerted colleges to the potential for abuse.
In both cases, professors were offering scores of independent studies to students within an academic year. Athletes were big beneficiaries, but neither case drew substantial NCAA involvement because nonathletes were also in the classes.
“This is an area that by the very nature of it is prone to abuse,” said Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. “Also by the very nature of it, it could be the most meaningful learning experience, and you’ve got to watch both ends of it.”
Auburn’s scandal drew the attention of UNC faculty in 2006, leading the Faculty Council to ask the university’s Faculty Committee on Athletics to check for signs of independent studies abuse.
At that time, the African studies department was offering far more independent studies than its faculty could manage. Shortly after, the number of independent studies in the department dropped significantly.
But that drop didn’t become known until years later, in the wake of the scandal. It is not clear why. Meanwhile, the no-show classes continued until 2011, though they dropped off after the African studies department’s longtime manager, Deborah Crowder, retired in 2009.