A tale from the “wild, wild west” of academia

An internal investigation at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has uncovered academic fraud involving the department of African and Afro-American Studies. The fraud extends to more than 50 different classes. It ranges from no-show professors to unauthorized grade changes for students.

According to the findings of the investigation, the department of African and Afro-American Studies offered 616 classes from the Summer of 2007 through the Summer of 2009. This fact alone raises questions for me. How serious could this many courses, offered by one backwater department, be?

In any event, the investigation found that in 9 of the 616 courses, there was no evidence that the faculty member listed as instructor of record, or any other faculty member, supervised the course or graded the work. Students apparently submitted work and received grades, but the grades were submitted to the Office of the Registrar with faculty signatures that appear to be forged.

In 43 additional courses, an instructor provided an assignment and evidently graded the resultant paper. However, the instructor engaged in limited or no classroom or other instructional contact with students.

Most of the suspect classes were “taught” by Julius Nyang’oro, who started the department and chaired it until last year. In fact, he was listed as the instructor of record, or his name was listed on the grade rolls, for each of the 43 courses where an instructor provided assignments and grades but performed essentially no teaching. Again, for one professor to have responsibility for 43 courses in two-year span seems farcical on its face.

Who was minding the store? The answer, it appears, is no one. The University’s chancellor clearly wasn’t. Less than a year ago, Chancellor Holden Thorp expressed full confidence in Nyang’oro even as concerns about his instruction began to surface. Did Thorp bother to check the course guide?

It appears that the scandal first came to light as a football story. Many of the students who took the bogus courses were members of the football team. Together with basketball players, they comprised 39 percent of the lucky students. But the investigation found no evidence that athletes were treated differently than anyone else. Everyone who took the course received the same stellar instruction.

In my opinion, based on the facts I’ve seen so far, this story isn’t about football; it’s about academic corruption. And I doubt it’s any accident that the corruption occurred in a Black studies department, the wildest precinct in the wild west of academia. Administrators have little reason to hold such departments accountable. Why would an administrator risk the ire of campus minorities, not to mention accusations of racism, in the name of ensuring rigor (or at least some degree of seriousness) in a department that he or she may well consider something of a joke to begin with?

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