SBI Probing Fraud Report in African, Afro-American Studies

The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into a report of academic fraud in UNC’s department of African and Afro-American studies following a request from the district attorney for Orange and Chatham counties.

James Woodall ’82 (’85 JD) said that after he read the report of a University review of the department, he received information that indicated one or more people may have been compensated for supervising classes that now are believed to have been without supervision.

Woodall said he asked SBI officials to investigate “academic and financial fraud, computer fraud or misuse, forgery and any intent to conceal those crimes.” He said that the bureau could decide to expand the probe but that “they like to have a starting point.”

Red flags raised during the UNC football program investigation led to a probe of the department that turned up what appears to be a multifaceted web of academic fraud in which professors were absent, grades were changed without proper authorization and faculty oversight of students’ work was suspect.

The evidence of fraud covered more than 50 classes. The report said that many of the classes had been taught in summer sessions by Julius Nyang’oro, the department’s first and only chair until he resigned as chair under pressure last August. Nyang’oro may have received compensation for teaching summer school classes that were not held.

The investigation covered the period summer 2007 through summer 2011. It said that in the period summer 2007 to summer 2009, nine classes containing 59 students were found to be “aberrant” — showing “no evidence that the faculty member listed as instructor of record or any other faculty member actually supervised the course and graded the work, although grade rolls were signed and submitted.”

It said 43 other courses were either aberrant or were “taught irregularly” — in other words, “the instructor provided an assignment and evidently graded the resultant paper, but engaged in limited or no classroom or other instructional contact with the student.”

It said that while there was no evidence Nyang’oro promoted the offering of aberrant courses, he “bears responsibility as Department Chair for the grave mistakes made during his watch.” Nyang’oro plans to retire from the University July 1.

Of the 686 enrollments in the 54 classes connected to the fraud investigation, 246 were football players and 23 were basketball players — 39 percent of the enrollments, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

“University officials say they found no evidence that the suspect classes were part of a plan between Nyang’oro and the athletic department to create classes that student-athletes could pass so they could maintain their eligibility,” the newspaper reported. “They said student-athletes were treated no differently in the classes than students who were not athletes.”

The report concluded that it could not assign blame for “unprofessional and in some cases professionally unethical” actions but that during the period reviewed the educational experience of some students was compromised.

In interviews with a sample of students and faculty, “[n]o instance was found of a student receiving a grade who had not submitted written work. No evidence indicated that student-athletes received more favorable treatment than students who were not athletes.”

The report said that UNC contacted the district attorney and the State Bureau of Investigation regarding allegations of some professors that their signatures were forged but that those officials did not investigate because they didn’t think the incidents amounted to criminal activity.

Jonathan Hartlyn and William Andrews, professors and associate deans in the College of Arts and Sciences who led the investigation, wrote in a 10-page report: “We are deeply disturbed by what we have learned in the course of our review. Our review has exposed numerous violations of professional trust, affecting the relationship of faculty and students and the relationships among faculty colleagues in this department. These violations have undermined the educational experience of a number of students, have the potential to generate unfounded doubt and mistrust toward the department and its faculty, and could harm the academic reputation of the university.”

The department became the focus of suspicion after football player Michael McAdoo was found in an NCAA investigation to have had improper help from a tutor; subsequently he was found to have plagiarized a paper he wrote for a class taught by Nyang’oro. Another player, Marvin Austin ’12, was found to have taken and received a B-plus in an upper-level class taught by Nyang’oro before he started his first full semester at UNC.

The department is 15 years old and emerged from the curriculum in African and Afro-American studies. Nyang’oro joined the faculty in 1988 and became chair of the curriculum in 1992. The department has 15 tenure and tenure-track professors, one senior lecturer and five lecturers.

The report said the department is “an integral and important part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Its talented and dedicated faculty make many contributions to the University’s teaching, research and service missions.”

The University has spent the past few months reviewing independent study courses throughout the College of Arts and Sciences, partly because of what surfaced in African and Afro-American studies. The report said that review “did not find misconduct, but it made several suggestions for more accountability in tracking independent study classes and making sure professors are actively engaged with the students taking them.”

UNC’s website says this about the department:

“The goal of African and Afro-American studies at UNC-Chapel Hill is to give specific attention to the histories, cultures, cultural linkages, and contemporary socio-political realities of the peoples of Africa and the African Diasporas. We encourage majors to consider studying abroad in one of the expanding number of programs in Africa or the Atlantic African Diaspora.

“The skills and perspectives of African and Afro-American Studies provide an excellent background for students considering careers in international development, education, business, government, or diplomacy. Students concentrating in African and Afro-American Studies go on to a wide variety of managerial, teaching, and research positions. Other careers for which an African or Afro-American Studies concentration is excellent preparation include law, the foreign service, various positions in government, communications, social work, community development, and public administration.”

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