UNC-CH’s academic fraud case puts new scrutiny on professors

Oversight of tenured faculty questioned

07/27/2012 12:00 AM

03/11/2013 9:24 AM

Students get graded by their professors, but who grades the professors?

That question has bubbled up following the revelation that for years, students signed up for dozens of classes in UNC-Chapel Hill’s African and Afro-American Studies Department but received little or no instruction from a professor. Some of the classes were heavily populated by athletes.

A faculty panel on Thursday called for an independent commission of higher education experts to examine the balance between athletics and academics at the university. The subcommittee described an atmosphere of distrust on a campus “with two cultures” and a lack of oversight of administrators who run academic departments.

The faculty panel had combed through a May internal university review that identified 54 such courses – including 45 under Julius Nyang’oro, a former professor and department chairman who is now at the center of a fraud probe by the State Bureau of Investigation. Nyang’oro has declined to talk with reporters about his classes.

Nyang’oro – as department chairman – was not subject to the five-year cycle of evaluation for senior professors known as post-tenure review.

“That was a further check and balance that did not take place,” said Jonathan Hartlyn, a UNC-CH senior associate dean who helped conduct the review of the African and Afro-American Studies department. Hartlyn spoke recently to a separate UNC system panel that is reviewing the campus probe, which zeroed in on the actions of Nyang’oro and Deborah Crowder, a former office manager in the department.

University officials won’t disclose the date of Nyang’oro’s last review, citing personnel privacy rules, though UNC-CH did release other personnel data about the professor in its review of the department.

Despite policies governing teaching practices, Hartlyn said, the problems in the African and Afro-American Studies department escaped attention. “The college relies primarily on the integrity of our department chairs and department managers to implement the policies,” Hartlyn said. “Our system did not anticipate a situation where both the chair and the manager could have been involved in the irregularities.”

Universities are large decentralized places, where individual academic departments exercise a certain amount of freedom to create courses, assign professors and conduct work independently. And the principles of academic freedom give professors a wide swath to determine what they teach and how they go about it.

That may help explain the gaps that led to what UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp has called “a terrible case of academic fraud” that seriously threatened the integrity of the university.

The university’s reputation took a hit, Thorp said, and students were shortchanged, too. “None of these students in these classes got the quality of educational experience that we expect all Carolina students to get,” he said, “and that is absolutely not OK.”

‘A struggle for us’

The overwhelming majority of faculty perform to the high standards that the public, and tuition-paying students, expect, said Karen Gil, dean of UNC-CH’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“I certainly trust the basic integrity of our courses and our faculty, and believe they’re doing their jobs,” Gil told the UNC system panel. “But it has been a struggle for us, as you know. It has been difficult to convince people that that is true.”

Campus officials say the problem was confined to one department, and new procedures are in place to guard against such rogue courses, including better monitoring of teaching assignments and new rules governing independent study courses.

The UNC-CH case has highlighted concerns by critics who claim the tenure system can lead to abuse by faculty who are granted what amounts to a lifetime job guarantee. Some suggest that there should be more oversight of the nearly 14,000 faculty who teach in the state’s 16 public universities.

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative advocacy organization, recently urged that all of North Carolina’s state universities search aggressively for trouble in their academic programs.

Jay Schalin, director for state policy analysis, wrote in an op-ed piece in The News & Observer this month that the system should look for problems proactively “rather than avoiding them until they accidentally make headlines.” He said anomalies could be spotted through a computer analysis of grade distributions, and then suspect courses could be more thoroughly investigated.

Problems usually only surface with a scandal such as the one in UNC-CH’s African and Afro-American Studies Department.

“Let’s suppose a teacher or instructor does a mediocre job. Who cares?” said Jane Shaw, president of the Pope Center. “I mean, there’s nobody who’s actually being hurt by that in the system. The department chairman doesn’t get hurt, the dean doesn’t get hurt, the provost doesn’t unless it blows up in a real embarrassing situation, which this was, to say the least. There just isn’t an incentive to act on whatever the protocol is.”

The tenure system

There are a slew of guidelines and policies governing the review of faculty members. They vary by university and even by individual academic departments, so that the criteria for evaluating the work of say, an engineering professor, are different from that of a sociology professor.

The most elaborate is the seven-year probationary path toward tenure itself – an often grueling process and a high bar that some faculty never clear. Generally, a young faculty member starting out is evaluated yearly, with more intensive reviews every few years on the road to the tenure decision in the sixth year. The reviews would likely include some classroom observation by faculty colleagues.

For those who are awarded tenure, there is less oversight from that point on, though there is at least some annual determination of performance to grant merit pay increases, said Suzanne Ortega, senior vice president for academic affairs for the UNC system.

In the 1990s, universities across the nation began to adopt post-tenure review processes to respond to concerns that senior professors weren’t being held accountable for their work.

“It really came in the wake of people’s twofold concern. One is that there were a bunch of tenured faculty who didn’t mind squeaking by with very little annual pay increase – they were sort of sitting on their duffs and not doing much,” Ortega said. “And there was a sense, that furthermore, even if they were maybe not cutting edge and only a little lazy, there might be a few who actually didn’t deserve to still be employed.”

In 1997, the UNC Board of Governors adopted new requirements for post-tenure review in the UNC system’s 16 university campuses. From then on, each campus developed procedures to ensure a cumulative review of faculty members at least every five years. The idea was to identify poorly performing professors and give them a plan, and timetable, for improvement. Sanctions, including dismissal, could be used if a faculty member did not turn around performance.

Few found deficient

A 2010 report showed that rarely are faculty members deemed underperforming. Of 6,606 faculty evaluated systemwide during a 10-year period, 209, or just 3.2 percent, were found to be deficient in post-tenure reviews.

Not many are actually fired, however. In 2008-09, for example, 21 professors systemwide were found deficient in reviews, according to the report. Six completed their improvement plans, and 11 were still working on theirs. Three retired, and dismissal procedures were initiated for one.

Ortega, whose career has spanned four public universities in Washington, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico, said she sees nothing unusual in the UNC system numbers.

The reason for the low percentage of faculty found “deficient” may be that the tenure hurdle itself serves as a gatekeeper, she said.

“The process of getting tenure is actually very rigorous,” she said. “I truly believe that only the hearty survive.”

The weakest spot may be the evaluation of administrators. Once a professor steps into an administrative role, he or she no longer falls under the automatic rule for the five-year post-tenure review for faculty whose primary responsibility is teaching and research, Ortega said.

Aside from the one case at Chapel Hill, Ortega said, there has been nothing that suggests that the UNC system has a fundamentally flawed process. She added, “I think we’re going to learn something about strengthening review processes, because you always do, when you have a problem.”

It is not uncommon for a department chairman to defer the post-tenure review while serving as an administrator, said Bobbi Owen, senior associate dean for undergraduate education. After all, she said, “you can’t review yourself,” and the duties of an administrator would mean that a professor’s scholarship would likely be on hold.

But Owen added, “I think it’s fair to say our oversight of chairs is going to become more vigilant.”

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