CHapel Hill Herald editorial: UNC report on academic scandal raises new questions

Dec. 29, 2012 @ 10:18 AM

When a former governor is commissioned to compile a report on an academic scandal at the state’s flagship public university, more than a few onlookers will be interested in the results and the process. This was most certainly the case when former governor Jim Martin released the report on the academic scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

And while that review put some aspects of the scandal into focus, other questions were raised and left unanswered.

Martin and his team identified problems that went back to 1997, when the African and Afro American Studies Department became a stand-alone department, whereas before it was two separate curriculum tracks.

An internal investigation covered the period between summer 2007 and summer 2011 and found that 54 courses were determined to be aberrant or irregularly taught. The Martin investigation found 216 courses with “proven or potential anomalies” and 454 suspected unauthorized grade changes – a much more extensive tally of problem courses and actions.

The irregular courses were those in which the instructor of record disclaims responsibility for the course, and those in which purported lecture courses were in fact “term-paper courses” with no lecture component and grades issued for a single term paper. Additionally, eight professors had their names signed to rolls without their consent and grade changes were made without their authorization.

As the previous report did, the Martin report blamed former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro and former department assistant Debbie Crowder for the scandal.

An independent review and other actions are forthcoming.

It is unclear the extent to which any university investigators have tried to contact Nyang’oro or Crowder to learn what they can from them; Martin offered little detail other than saying attempts were made. That is disturbing. It is also strange that Martin, in discussing the investigation, labeled it an academic scandal, and not an athletic scandal, when 30 percent of the students in the suspect courses were athletes at UNC. Multiple published reports have indicated that athletes benefited disproportionately from these lax academic offerings.

A possible motive, according to the Martin report, was to beef up enrollment of African and Afro American Studies Department courses in order to increase faculty numbers there. We deserve to know more about the why in this case. The what and how is important as well, and this report is a needed step forward in those areas.