The record of a UNC-Chapel Hill class called “AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina” is key evidence in a long-running academic fraud scandal.
Last week, an Orange County grand jury issued an indictment charging what numerous records had indicated: Julius Nyang’oro, the longtime chairman of UNC-Chapel Hill’s African and Afro-American Studies department had created the class in the summer of 2011, but it never met.
Nonetheless, university officials list it only as a “suspected” fraudulent class, a designation it gave to the vast majority of the no-show classes identified by a UNC-commissioned investigation a year ago, and one that accrediting officials accepted in passing judgment on the academic fraud.
As a result, UNC wasn’t required to reach out to the hundreds of students in the AFAM 280 class and 166 others to offer another course, despite compelling evidence those classes also never met. That requirement was only made for students in 39 “confirmed” no-show classes.
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Zach Ferguson, a graduate now attending UNC law school, found that out this summer, when he wanted to know why no one had contacted him about a class he took in fall 2005. Like the so-called “confirmed” no-show classes, Ferguson’s never met; Nyang’oro told him to write a paper to turn in at the end.
“I didn’t get the main benefit, which was an educator teaching you and enriching you,” he said.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, an adjunct law professor at UNC who specializes in helping athletes with NCAA matters, said UNC’s default position should have been to reach out to students in any class that the university can’t show was legitimate and offer them an opportunity to get the education they paid for.
Identifying the classes as suspected versus confirmed, he said, “sounds like a sort of euphemistic way to avoid the question of whether somebody taught the class or not,” Orr said.
Former Gov. Jim Martin conducted an investigation into the academic fraud for the university, and found 206 confirmed or suspected classes that date back to the mid-1990s. His investigation identified a “confirmed class” as one in which the listed instructor denied teaching the class, or Nyang’oro confirmed it hadn’t been taught.
Martin said a “suspected class” was one in which no instructor could be found, or the instructor listed in the records couldn’t confirm having taught it. The News & Observer’s investigation into the classes found additional evidence that several suspected classes – including the AFAM 280 class – had not met and only required a term paper.
But the university downplayed the suspected classes in its correspondence with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting commission that launched an investigation last year in response to the discovery of the no-show classes. Accrediting officials could not be reached.
“It is simply not the case that hundreds of registrations by students were for anomalous courses,” the university wrote, citing the 39 confirmed no-show classes.
If the suspected classes were included, the total number of enrollments in no-show classes would climb to more than 4,200.
Karen Moon, a UNC spokeswoman, said in a recent email that the university had no additional evidence to show any of the 167 “suspected” classes were legitimate.
Nyang’oro, 59, of Durham, has been charged with obtaining property by false pretenses in relation to the 2011 AFAM 280 class. His lawyer said he is innocent of the charge. The class was filled with football players, one of many suspected or confirmed classes that showed disproportionate numbers of athletes enrolled in them.
Ferguson, who was not an athlete, thought he was in one of the confirmed classes. In July, he wrote the university about the class he took in the fall of 2005 on Southern Africa that never met. He was a Florida native and undergraduate student paying out-of-state tuition at the time. He wrote the university seeking a tuition credit to make up for the education he did not receive.
Nyang’oro was the professor, Ferguson told UNC officials in the email.
“I visited (Nyang’oro) once, when he approved my topic and told me we would not have any scheduled meetings or talks, only that I could contact him if I had a problem,” Ferguson wrote. His concerns about the class were first reported in the UNC student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.
In August 2012, The N&O reported that another student in that class had said it never met, and he was also told to write a paper to turn in at the end. But Martin labeled it a “suspected” class in his report.
Christopher Derickson, the university’s registrar and assistant provost, told Ferguson in a letter that he was in good academic standing and didn’t need an additional class, but if he wanted one it would be provided. Derickson disputed that the university hadn’t “proactively” reached out to all students about the “academic irregularities.”
But he also said while the university “has concerns about all the anomalous courses identified in the Martin Report, the courses of greatest concern for the University and for our accrediting agency were the (confirmed) courses.”
In June, the accrediting commission announced its decision on the classes. It said it would monitor UNC for a year and also require it to do spot-checks on classes to make sure they were meeting. The university sent out a report to students and alumni that answered questions about the decision. It made no mention of offering free classes to students in the “suspected” classes, nor did a report in the university alumni newsletter.
Moon said in an email Friday that students in the confirmed and suspected classes were told to call a dedicated line – 919-962-9853 – for assistance. But a recorded message on that line only tells students in the confirmed classes to leave their contact information. It makes no mention of the suspected classes that involved hundreds more students.
Moon said only one student in a suspected class has sought a free one.
Ferguson said the lack of effort to reach out to students in the suspected classes is disappointing. He said he could find no correspondence from the university that alerted him that he might have been in a bogus class. He wrote the accrediting commission last month to tell them they should be concerned about the suspected classes. All he said he has received from the commission is an acknowledgement of his email.
“I love UNC and I want to see UNC do really well,” Ferguson said in an interview. Noting the more than $500,000 the university has spent on public relations related to the scandal, he said “it just seems like they are spending a lot of money on presenting it ‘right’ than getting to the bottom of it.”