Nearly 50 current students and more than 300 alumni who took fraudulent African studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill may be heading back to class.
That’s part of the university’s plan to “make whole” the academic degrees of 384 students who took the classes from 1997 to 2009 in what has become a reputation-smearing scandal at UNC-CH.
The plan was accepted Thursday by the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which decided to monitor UNC-CH for a year instead of imposing a sanction. The decision came as a big relief to university leaders who for months have been answering questions from a SACS review team.
By undertaking the do-over for affected students and alumni, the university managed to avoid probation or a warning from SACS – sanctions that can be a prelude to loss of accreditation. Colleges cannot get federal funding for research or financial aid if they are not accredited.
The commission’s board reviewed the academic fraud that occurred in UNC-CH’s African and Afro-American Studies department, where an investigation found more than 200 classes with little or no instruction dating back to the late 1990s. The courses were heavily enrolled with athletes. The State Bureau of Investigation is still looking into possible criminal conduct in the matter.
“The board felt that they were doing as much due diligence as was possible,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the commission. “I know that the people – some of the people anyway – who were involved in (the fraud) are no longer at the university, so what do you do? So all they can do is change their policies to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and then try and find the students to see if they can’t make those degrees whole somehow.”
Makeup course or exam
Some on campus were appalled by the lack of action by the accrediting agency.
“It’s amazing. I guess the flagship gets off the hook,” said Mary Willingham, a UNC-CH reading specialist who used to work with athletes and has been outspoken about the problems there. “For me, it’s getting to the point where power is so much more important than justice.”
Forty-six current students will be given the option of taking a makeup course for free, sitting for an exam or submitting work that was done for classes that didn’t meet, if they want to graduate. Alumni will be offered a free course, though it won’t affect their degree or grades; transcripts cannot be altered after one year post-graduation, according to university policy.
In all, the university said there were 80 students and 304 alumni who had taken 39 so-called “Type 1” lecture classes in which the instructor denied teaching it or signing the grade roll, or one in which the department chairman said had not been taught.
Other courses were found to be less problematic and won’t have to be made up. Thirty-four of the current students either don’t need another course to qualify for graduation, successfully completed a higher level course or graduated elsewhere.
In documents provided to the accrediting group, the university maintained that students said they did work in the classes, producing final papers.
“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,” said a May 28 response that UNC-CH submitted to SACS.
In April, SACS sent a three-person review team to the campus to interview administrators about the steps they were taking to prevent a recurrence. While the team seemed satisfied with a series of policy and procedure changes, it didn’t want to let go the issue of degrees earned in part through fraudulent classes.
When administrators said they would count the suspect classes toward graduation credit for current students, the SACS panel balked.
“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.
In the end, the university settled on the extra classes for students and alumni. It said no taxpayer money would pay for the classes.
The university will have to submit a report by next June on its progress toward that goal.
In an email to the campus on Thursday, Chancellor Holden Thorp said he was pleased with the SACS decision.
“We have provided information, responded to all questions, taken necessary actions, and documented the comprehensive reforms that we have put in place over the past two years because of issues related to the unprofessional and unethical actions of two former department employees,” wrote Thorp, who will step down as chancellor at the end of this month.
“We are confident the sweeping changes we have made, based on the results of seven internal and independent, outside reviews or investigations, will prevent any recurrence of these irregularities.”
Spot checks to continue
In the spring semester, university administrators conducted surprise inspections of hundreds of classes to ensure that students and faculty were meeting and that the courses were legitimate. Those spot checks will continue, according to the accrediting team report, despite the fact that they irked some faculty.
Such a review was unprecedented at UNC-CH, but so was the fraud, Wheelan said.
Among the irregularities were no-show classes, poorly supervised independent studies and hundreds of unauthorized grade changes.
‘It was significant’
Athletes accounted for 45 percent of the enrollments in the suspect classes in a 10-year period, according to the review by former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin.
The university has repeatedly said the fraud constituted an academic scandal, not an athletic one. But recent emails showed a cozy relationship between athletes’ academic advisers and Julius Nyang’oro, the former department chairman and professor who has been blamed for the fraud, along with a former department manager, Debbie Crowder.
“It was significant,” Wheelan said. “Anytime you bring in the integrity of the university and what it’s doing, it’s a serious issue. It can damage an institution’s reputation. But the board felt that they were doing as much as they could to right this wrong.”
Willingham said it has been too easy for the university to write off the scandal by pointing the finger at two individuals instead of a corrupt system.
“I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface in doing the right thing at this point,” she said. “It’s shocking that we’re going to blame two people and move on.”