Getting Proactive with Academic Corruption

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on July 13.)

The ongoing attempts by North Carolina state agencies to get to the bottom of the grade scandal in UNC-Chapel Hill’s African and Afro-American Studies Department are laudable. Yet both current investigations, by the school itself and by the State Bureau of Investigation, are too narrow: The problem may not be just one department at one school, but more widespread.

After all, if one such department can operate for many years at the state’s flagship university, isn’t it possible that other departments in the system are also offering substandard courses?

The UNC system has 16 universities, nearly 2,000 degree programs, over 16,000 faculty members and more than 220,000 students. Fifteen campuses have varsity basketball teams, and 12 have varsity football teams. While Chapel Hill’s administration and others have tried to paint the AFAM department as a single rogue program, the sheer size of the system suggests good odds that there are other substandard departments.

And even one more program like former department Chairman Julius Nyang’oro’s AFAM is too many. If the Chapel Hill administration, the system’s General Administration, and the Board of Governors were fast asleep on that one, what else are they missing?

It’s time for the system to seek out potential problems proactively rather than avoiding them until they accidentally make headlines. AFAM’s problems came to light only because a single tweet by a football player started an investigation that wound a slow, sordid path to the department’s door. No tweet, or nobody noticing the inappropriate behavior described in the tweet, and Nyang’oro would still be the department chair, giving out good grades for almost no work.

Somebody – the Board of Governors, an independent commission, the SBI or the state auditor’s department – should investigate the academic integrity of the entire system.

It need not be a massive effort with a large team of researchers taking several years to produce a report that can pass peer review. It simply requires, at least initially, that a few simple facts are cross-checked with each other by a single researcher who’s handy with a computer.

The facts that need to be cross-checked are the distribution of grades for each course in the entire system, the distribution of students in each course according to their year of study (freshman, sophomore, etc.), the course title and the professor. And certainly any course or degree program with an inordinate number of athletes enrolled should raise a red flag.

The process would begin by identifying course sections with abnormally high grade distributions. But not all sections that give out lots of A’s are a concern. For instance, a senior-level math or chemistry course should probably have a preponderance of A’s and B’s, for the students taking such classes are the ones who have excelled at grueling subjects throughout their academic careers. Such courses can be ignored.

Freshman or sophomore-level course sections with too many high grades, however, should be more closely scrutinized. Courses in disciplines that lend themselves to a lack of rigor should also be looked at closely. After seeing what went on at Chapel Hill, it appears that AFAM is one such discipline.

In fairly short order, a list of course sections that are potentially substandard would be produced. These classes would be examined further, using syllabi, reading lists, course descriptions, student evaluations, assignments, tests and anything else that shows the course’s academic value or lack thereof. With such close inspection, and some common sense, most truly substandard classes would be uncovered.

As a final step, the courses identified as substandard could be aggregated to show whether there is a problem with a particular department, program or faculty member. This process will not uncover every problem, but it will expose some of the worst.

The state should aggressively ensure that any programs operating outside acceptable boundaries are corrected and that those responsible for them are sent packing. Until this occurs, the entire system will be viewed with suspicion; it’s better to remove the doubts – and any offenders – than to let questions about academic integrity linger.