By: Corey Risinger
Though the bubble initially burst on cases of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina in May of 2012, a December report by former Governor Jim Martin has sparked new controversy. Last spring, UNC officials and investigators discovered that 54 classes within the African studies department did not meet appropriately. These courses, supposedly in a “lecture” format, only required a single research paper to be completed upon the end of the semester. As a result of allegations of misconduct and questions of potential athletic scandal, Julius Nyang’oro, former head of the African studies department, stepped down from his role in the university.
Governor Martin’s investigative report confirms Nyang’oro’s participation in grade alterations and the fraudulent lecture courses. His investigation recorded as many as 216 questionable classes and 560 cases of possible grade tampering as compared to an originally suspected 54. Martin determined that the academic scandal was contained to the African studies department.
“No evidence from our review points to anyone else’s involvement beyond Ms. [Deborah] Crowder and Dr. Nyang’oro,” Martin’s report stated.
Crowder, a former assistant to Nyang’oro, also became a person of interest in Martin’s report, but her 2009 retirement prevented her involvement from being accurately determined.
“[W]e cannot definitively conclude regarding the degree of Ms. Crowder’s responsibility for the academic anomalies noted in this report. . .this review. . .found a dramatic reduction in academic anomalies after Summer 2009, which coincided with the time of Ms. Crowder’s retirement,” the report said.
Despite early fervor that the lecture courses benefited athletes unfairly, both Governor Martin’s report and UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham assert that it was not an athletic scandal.
“It showed the same irregularities that went back further, but it didn’t show that there was anything directly related to athletics. Certainly there were student-athletes involved in classes as were a lot of other groups,” Cunningham told the News & Observer in December.
“This was not an athletic scandal. It was an academic scandal, which is worse; but an isolated one,” Governor Martin said in the presentation of his December report.
The NCAA issued a range of scholarship reduction and bowl game sanctions against UNC arising from an improper benefit scandal tied to the football program. This fall, the NCAA has not indicated a renewed inquiry at UNC related to this latest academic impropriety.
Governor Martin’s discussion of the Faculty Athletic Committee’s role in the scandal has raised eyebrows. He notes that the issue of these fraudulent independent studies was a topic of debate in 2002 and 2006.
“On two occasions (in 2002 and 2006) leaders of the Academic Support for Student Athletes brought to the Faculty Athletic Committee their concerns about students taking nominally lecture courses that did not meet and only required one 20-page term paper, and other forms of questionable independent study,” the report read. “These courses became the subject of the Hartlyn-Andrews Review, but at the time these concerns were dismissed with reassurances that instructors had wide latitude how to teach a course.”
Governor Martin claims that the FAC, a group responsible for alerting the chancellor of any impending information about the academics of student athletes, addressed the issue of the lecture classes, deciding that professors had the authority to determine their own teaching methods.
The report indicates that the university staff took actions to inform the FAC of possible academic fraud, freeing them from responsibility. However, several members of the FAC in 2002 have denied the accuracy of this section of Governor Martin’s report.
UNC Professor Nicholas Didow was a member of the committee between 1999 and 2004; he was also present for the 2002 meeting referenced by Governor Martin’s report. Didow’s memory of the meeting, as well as the official meeting minutes, contradict Governor Martin’s report. Didow recalls discussing details of the independent studies at the university, but not those in question.
“I vaguely remember the briefing on enrollments in independent studies by student athletes versus non-athletes,” Didow told the ECHO. “I remember that the enrollment rate was higher for student athletes, yet somewhat comparable, not unreasonable, and did not strike me as sufficiently out of line as to raise any concern.”
The 2002 FAC chairman Dr. Stanley Mandel aggress with Didow’s recollection and stands by the recorded minutes of the meeting.
“You won’t find any reference to [the African studies department’s academic fraud] in the committee minutes because there was no reference to it,” Mandel told the News & Observer. “There was no discussion. Nothing was brought up.”
Didow elaborated, saying that the committee was not informed of any “red flags,” as Governor Martin’s report asserts.
“There was absolutely no indication of any misconduct by advisors, student athletes [,] . . . any particular department or faculty member, academic fraud, or any other pernicious or suspicious behavior,” Didow said. “Had there been, I would have immediately taken appropriate action to demand further investigation and strong corrective measures.”
Governor Martin’s official report is available to the public and attached to this article. In response to articles by the News & Observer, Governor Martin has defended his investigation’s findings.
“For our part, we relied on [the 2002 meeting’s minutes] and four witnesses who were there and affirmed it happened, plus a later conversation with a participant who did not deny it,” Governor Martin wrote.
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