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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Gov. Martin, Baker Tilly reports offer answers to ‘hard questions’

“The hard questions have been asked,” Chancellor Holden Thorp said, “and today we have answers.”

The answers came from two independent reviews undertaken in response to academic irregularities that the University had discovered in some courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. The findings from those reviews were presented Dec. 20 to the University’s Board of Trustees.

Last summer, Thorp and the trustees hired Baker Tilly, a national management consulting firm specializing in academic operations procedures and controls, to assess the numerous new policies, procedures and controls the University implemented to prevent these and similar problems from happening again.

In August, Thorp and the trustees also asked former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin to explore, without any restrictions, any issue raised by the review of African and Afro-American studies courses. Baker Tilly supported Martin in the investigation.

That review began with three fundamental questions: What year did the academic anomalies begin? Did anomalies exist in other departments outside African and Afro-American studies? What factors allowed the anomalies to occur and who was culpable?

A key finding, Martin told the trustees, was that the anomalies uncovered during his four-month review were academic in nature, not athletic. He said there was no evidence that counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, students or coaches had anything to do with perpetrating the abuse of the department’s curriculum. 

“Let me tell you the ultimate conclusion: This was not an athletic scandal,” Martin said. “It was an academic scandal, which is worse. But it was isolated.”

‘A unique malpractice’

As disturbing as the academic abuses were, Martin said, they were contained within that one department and perpetuated by two people – Julius Nyang’oro, who resigned as the department’s longtime chair in fall 2011 and was forced to retire last July, and former department administrator Deborah Crowder, who retired in 2009.

“We found nothing like this in any other course of any other department of the University,” Martin said. “It was a unique malpractice limited to AFRI-AFAM.”

Within that department, no other faculty member was involved “culpably or unethically” except Nyang’oro, along with Crowder, he said. Eight other faculty were “unwittingly and indirectly compromised” in dozens of instances in which their signatures on grade rolls and grade changes were signed by someone else without their authorization.

“This department has endured a year of unmitigated hell arising from the implied guilt by association, the rumors and the jokes at their expense,” Martin said. “They had nothing to do with creating this monster or serving its demands.

“They deserve your support and thanks for their enduring grace under fire.”

Abuses Began in 1997

Martin’s review of courses taken by all Carolina undergraduates between 1994 and 2012 revealed that the anomalies began in 1997 – a full decade earlier than the focus of an internal study conducted by senior associate deans Jonathan Hartlyn and William Andrews. Hartlyn and Andrews had conducted a comprehensive review of courses taught in African and Afro-American studies from 2007 to 2011 (see the report at go.unc.edu/So87A). That review was launched in 2011 when questions were raised about some irregularly taught courses dating back to 2007.

The Martin report found the first instance of a course that was listed as a lecture course, but in fact required students only to turn in a single term paper without any attendance requirement, came in fall 1997, several months after the twin curricula of African Studies and Afro-American Studies became a freestanding department.

Nyang’oro was chair of the department at its inception. A flawed oversight system allowed the anomalies to occur without raising suspicion, Martin explained. In this case, the department chair – the person responsible for enforcing the rules – was the one breaking them, he said.

Since University officials launched the internal investigation and subsequent reviews (see go.unc.edu/So87A), new policies and procedures drawn from more than 70 recommendations have been put into place. In a separate report, Baker Tilly found no gaps in the implementation of those policies
and procedures.

“The University is positioned well for the future,” Raina Rose Tagle, a partner with Baker Tilly, told the trustees.

Going forward, Martin said, the University must maintain academic autonomy to preserve the quality of the institution, but accountability is vital to protect academic integrity.

Thorp said the Martin report indicated that the University must be more vigilant about living up to its ideals.

“For years, we’ve been proud – and you might even say boastful – that we always did things the right way,” Thorp said. “We took that for granted. Today, we can’t run away from what we’ve learned.

“We made mistakes in the past. We were complacent. We didn’t ask the hard questions that we should have asked. And we didn’t live up to our reputation.”

Following the evidence

Martin said that he and Rose Tagle had been given free rein in conducting their reviews.

“The chancellor expected us to be independent and thorough,” Martin said, and “above all else, to follow the evidence.”

They studied the previous four internal reports and media accounts and interviewed more than 80 people, from coaches to student-athletes to advisers and faculty members, he said, “and even one mom.”

They also conducted a computer search for every course taught in every department by every instructor to track the grades and grade changes for every student for the past 18 years. That amounted to 172,580 course sections, taught by 12,715 instructors, taken by 118,611 undergraduates, totaling more than 4.6 million data elements.

“I can assure you, in every respect, the cooperation we received was impeccable,” Martin said. “Our access was unrestricted.”

Trustees Chair Wade Hargrove asked how the problem in African and Afro-American studies could go undetected so long.

Rose Tagle said it was possibly a lack of curiosity when questions surfaced nearly a decade ago, but she acknowledged that the way course records were constructed until recently made the information difficult to uncover without an in-depth investigation like that conducted by Hartlyn and Andrews.

Now, this information is more readily available with the implementation of ConnectCarolina, the University’s new centralized database, in managing, monitoring and tracking student records and grade forms.

In their comments to the Board of Governors review panel that afternoon, Martin and Rose Tagle reiterated that they had left no stone unturned in their investigation. In fact, Rose Tagle said, they went into the investigation expecting to find widespread evidence of similar academic fraud, and they found nothing beyond the anomalous courses in African and Afro-American studies and findings similar to the Hartlyn-Andrews report.

They also found that the percentage of student-athletes in those courses was consistent with the percentage of student-athletes enrolled in all courses offered by the department.

BOG member Walter Davenport asked whether the University had addressed the issues quickly enough.

Martin said he believed everything had been done. “The proper way to deal with this kind of issue is to examine it internally, and officials didn’t flinch from it,” he said.

Following the problems uncovered in the Hartlyn-Andrews review, University officials realized that another internal review going beyond 2007–11 would not satisfy people, Martin said. “Holden said, ‘Let’s find out what happened, even if it’s painful,’” he said. “You have a great treasure in that chancellor.”

In response to a question from BOG member James Deal about adapting best practices from the reviews for other campuses, Martin encouraged people to start with the departmental policies and procedures Eunice Sahle, chair of African and Afro-American studies since the beginning of this year,
has initiated.

“Professor Sahle’s policies and procedures manual is very comprehensive,” he said. “These processes should be used as a starting point and adapted to the specific needs of each campus.”

Hope for the future

Thorp told the trustees that he and others on campus had worked to understand what went wrong and to implement every reform possible to ensure that it never happens again.

He said he had a mix of sadness, anger and hope: “Sadness because of the toll that this has taken on the University and the people who love it. Anger because of the irresponsible actions of a few people. And hope because this is an important milestone for our University and all of us.

“We are embracing these findings, and we are moving forward as a much stronger university. I hope that ultimately we will be judged not only by what happened but by what we’re doing about it.”