Embroiled in Scandal, Again

The Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is in the news again.

A devastating internal review, issued May 2, revealed that over a period of three years, 54 courses in the department were essentially not taught, even though the students submitted papers and received grades. In all the courses there was either no supervision at all or else virtually no contact between the listed professor and the student.

The university is asking the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to look into possible fraud in the department. In the words of UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp, the purpose is to investigate “potential criminal activity” in connection with the former chairman of the department, Julius Nyang’oro, and his teaching of a course last summer.

The new scrutiny—one suspects it is the first-ever—of UNC’s African and Afro-American studies occurs amid a brief, explosive national questioning of the validity of academic departments built around race.

That national re-examination began in April with a glowing article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a new generation of graduate students in black studies. The article said that they are bringing “21st-century perspectives to the study of race. “ 

But one Chronicle blogger, Naomi Schaefer Riley, saw them differently. To Riley, Ph.D. topics such as “the profitability of racism” in subprime mortgage lending and the “assault on the civil rights legacy” by black conservatives  (quotations from the Chronicle story) represent “left-wing victimization claptrap.” As many readers know, her 500-word post created a firestorm. Sixty-five hundred outraged people petitioned the Chronicle to fire her, and she was, indeed, fired—in what historian KC Johnson called a “parody of political correctness.”

There are about 300 black or African-American studies programs in the country. A legacy of the civil rights movement, they were created with political and social goals rather than academic ones, and many of those goals were hostile to the broader culture. They may still be hostile.

“Most African-American studies departments elegantly teach you how to be a victim. They teach you how you are a victim in ways you didn’t think about,” said McWhorter in the 2007 movie Indoctrinate U. More recently, he wrote in these pages, “An African-American studies program ought to be shut down if it is still stuck in the original mission of the first one, at San Francisco State….Times have changed; black America has moved ahead.”

The goal of the recent Chronicle article was to sketch a picture of those departments, especially the 11 that grant Ph.D.s, by featuring a single one, Northwestern University’s.

The reporter, Stacey Patton, suggested that current black studies programs are different from those of the past—but the differences Patton cited had nothing to do with purpose or content, rather that they are more interdisciplinary and the graduates more self-confident. Indeed, the story itself, followed by Riley’s comments, reinforces the suspicion that some black studies programs are still mostly about victimization.

While Riley’s blog post criticized the research in African-American studies programs, the scandal at UNC is not about research. It is about teaching, or the lack of it, in UNC’s African and Afro-American Studies Department.

The UNC study was conducted by two associate deans of the College of Arts and Sciences, Jonathan Hartlyn and William L. Andrews. The authors found that between 2007 and 2009, Professor Nyang’oro, chairman of the department, taught at least 43 classes while providing either no actual supervision of the course or “limited or no classroom or other instructional contact with students.” Yet the students submitted papers and received grades for those classes. During that period nine other classes were also “aberrantly” taught, but the researchers couldn’t identify the instructors involved.

The review also found some apparent forgeries of faculty signatures and “unauthorized change of grade forms.” The report not-so-subtly points a finger at an administrative assistant, Deborah Crowder, who retired in 2009 and declined to be interviewed. But the report also says that the irregularities did not rise to the level of criminal liability. Given Holden Thorp’s statement, it appears that bringing in the SBI reflects the possibility that professor Nyang’oro was paid for a course he didn’t teach in 2011, rather than anything his assistant did—or that he did during the period studied.

This investigation might never have happened had it not been for UNC’s much-talked-about football scandal, which led to the firing of coach Butch Davis and the early retirement of athletic director Richard Baddour. In 2010, the university revealed that a number of football players had violated NCAA rules, primarily regarding contacts between agents and players and inappropriate payments of players’ expenses.

But there were also accusations of too much help from a tutor.

One player had been declared permanently ineligible for play because he had received excessive help with footnotes from the tutor. In his effort to be reinstated, he submitted the relevant term paper, “The Evolution of Swahili Culture on the East Coast of Africa,” as a court document. Once it was public, online bloggers (especially from NC State) quickly found many sections that had been obviously copied from other sources, including a sadly antiquated 1911 history of Africa.

The plagiarism, which had been completely missed by the Honor Court and UNC attorneys, raised the scandal to a higher level. UNC’s prized academic reputation was tarnished. Chancellor Holden Thorp fired the coach shortly after that discovery.

Additional negative attention hit the African and Afro-American department in 2011 when it was learned that one football player took a 400-level course in the summer before he began at UNC and received a B+. Yet, subsequently as a freshman, he was enrolled in Basic Writing, a remedial course. Soon, Nyang’oro, who had been department chairman since 1997, resigned under pressure.

So it appears—as some commentators said at the time—that the academic side, more than the sports side, may have been responsible for the low standards of some student-athletes’ academic work.

But there is a larger question here than who is responsible for the specific departmental failings. Are academics and administrators—at UNC and around the country—so protective of black studies programs that they refuse to allow proper oversight? At UNC, it took a highly publicized football scandal to spur an inquiry, and the resulting investigation remains narrow in scope.

That is why the furor over Naomi Schaefer Riley’s comments and her dismissal from the Chronicle of Higher Education matter. No administrator would want to experience the kind of outrage that erupted in the Riley affair. Given that setting, are African-American studies programs, including UNC’s, getting a free ride?

The key elements of this story—a puff piece in the Chronicle about black studies programs, the firing of someone who criticizes the Northwestern program, and flagrant malfeasance at UNC’s department—all suggest that they are being treated differently from other departments.

Lack of critical scrutiny and lack of oversight should be abhorrent in academia. Let us hope that the criminal investigation of one professor for one summer course is not a way to sweep the larger question under the rug.