Panel faults UNC ‘processes and systems’ in AFAM scandal

Feb. 07, 2013 @ 06:33 PM

A UNC Board of Governor’s panel asked to review investigations into academic scandals at UNC on Thursday laid the blame for improprieties in the school’s Department of African and Afro American Studies at the feet of former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro and former department administrator Deborah Crowder.

The board’s Academic Review Panel also said it is troubled that “improper courses” in the AFAM department as it is called were allowed to exist for 14 years without being detected.

 “Imperfect institutional processes and systems contributed substantially to the university’s failure to detect and stop these irregular courses and unauthorized grading practices,” the report said.

The review panel did not rule out the possibility that athletes were directed to the bogus courses to help them remain eligible to compete.

 “We may never know whether some student athletes were advised to enroll in the irregular courses specifically as a mechanism to help preserve their athletic eligibility, but no evidence has been found to support a conclusion that a conspiracy or collusion existed between the Athletic Department and the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes (ASPSA) on the other hand,” the report said.

 It added:

  “It is, however, reasonable to assume that many students – athletes and non-athletes alike – enrolled in these irregular AFAM Department courses expecting to achieve good grades with little rigor.”

The panel’s finding mirrors the conclusion of the university’s internal investigation and one by former Gov. Jim Martin and the Baker Tilly management consulting firm whose report in December also noted that non-athletes benefited from the courses and named Nyang’oro and Crowder as the two people responsible for bogus classes and improper grade changes.

And while the panel said it is confident the five separate investigations that cropped up in the wake of the scandal were thorough and complete, some board members expressed dissatisfaction with the contention that only Nyang’oro and Crowder are the blame for academic fraud that embarrassed the university and dinged its reputation.

In the absence of a “smoking gun” board member Burley Mitchell said the board must look at the available data.

“If you look at the data that’s involved here, it is inconceivable that this was two people who did this,” said Michell, a former State Supreme Court chief justice. “When you have 172 fake classes, 45 percent of the students in there are athletes. That is way disproportionate to their number on the campus, which is 5 percent. Somehow they are being directed to those courses.”

Meanwhile, board member Thomas Harrelson questioned whether the university needs an AFAM department.

“I’m just wondering if the whole idea of the department is not a bad idea,” Harrelson said.

Harrelson asked if it would be more appropriate to take individual courses from the department and roll them into other departments.

 “I think had it been that way, there would have been greater rigor and better administration,” Harrelson said. “And I would like to know more about the graduates with this kind of degree. What kind of jobs can they get?”

Board member Dudley Flood took issue with the suggestion that the department is unnecessary.

He said the absence of African American and African history in the regular curriculum at the university is the very reason for the department, and said he and others would protest any attempt to disband the program.

 “I would be incensed to hear there be any talk about dismantling the program unless you plan to replace it with some inclusivity in the program, not just here at UNC Chapel Hill but throughout the university system,” Flood said. 

UNC system President Tom Ross and then-board chairwoman Hannah Gage appointed the review panel in June and asked it to review investigations that ensued after irregular courses and unauthorized grade changes were uncovered in the department of AFAM.

Board member Louis Bissette, who served as chairman of the review panel, said the panel believes the university has taken the proper steps to prevent future scandals. 

“If there is a silver lining in any of these terrible events, it is that we now have the opportunity to take steps to ensure that this type of academic misconduct will not be allowed to occur again anywhere on the Chapel Hill campus or anywhere else in the system,” Bissette said.

In other business Thursday, the board received a proposed five-year strategic plan it will be asked to approve today.

The plan calls for setting a state degree attainment goal of 32 percent by 2018.

The new degrees would come from public and private high schools and also from new residents who move to the state with degrees.

The UNC system will also employ a number of strategies to help boost the number of degrees granted by its universities, including producing more degrees among transfer students and convincing military personnel that UNC schools are of better quality and a better bargain than the online schools that have become popular among the troops.

If fully implemented, UNC system officials said, the plan will generate $1.5 billion in total economic activity statewide, create 22,000 new jobs and produce 92,000 new degrees by 2025.

The UNC system will seek about $650 million in additional funding form the state over the next five years to implement the plan.

It also plans to redirect some $325 million to the effort it hopes to gain in cost-saving through becoming more efficient.