Bogus Grades at Winston-Salem State?

(Editor’s note: An update on one of the issues raised in the hearing can be found at the end of this article.)

A hearing at Winston-Salem State University to investigate a professor’s alleged misconduct raised more questions about the administration than it answered about the professor.

On February 21, the Faculty Hearing Committee on Discharge and Non-reappointment held a public but little-publicized hearing on the case of Dr. Olethia Davis, the former coordinator of political science in Winston-Salem’s State’s Social Sciences Department.

Dr. Davis has been suspended from teaching since last May, when she was also told that she might be fired. She had been charged with “misrepresentation and falsification of credentials” because she wrote the word “book” on her curriculum vitae next to what was merely her 1991 Ph.D. dissertation for Louisiana State University.

Dr. Brenda Allen, the provost for Winston-Salem State who brought the allegations, opened the hearing by saying, “One of the things we need to be concerned about is honesty and integrity in scholarship.” She added, “A published book is a very specific thing.”

The hearing, moderated by education professor Dr. Glen Holmes and held under Section 603 of the UNC code, turned out to be about far more than whether Professor Davis had misclassified a scholarly work.

The proceedings were intimately connected with a scandal in which professors complained about the administration changing some grades they had assigned.

A former Winston-Salem State employee wrote in July that two professors reported having their grades changed without their permission after submitting them and that the students who benefited were black. The author of that piece was Shira Hedgepeth, the former director of academic technology, who was fired in 2011. The federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission found that her firing from the historically black university might have been racially motivated.

While Davis disputed the charges of misconduct against her, she even more vigorously questioned the provost’s motives. She did not openly charge Allen with retaliation, but based a sizable portion of her defense on the suspicious timing of events.

Davis has been a professor at Winston-Salem State since the fall of 2007. Her use of the word “book” as a descriptor for her dissertation on her curriculum vitae was not a problem until she applied for tenure in September of 2012. (No other aspect of her CV was questioned during the hearing.)

In December 2012, Davis testified, the faculty Tenure and Promotion Committee ruled 12-0 in favor of giving Davis tenure, but the provost denied her application. When Davis asked for her reasoning during the hearing, Allen replied, “My primary reason for denying you tenure was that I didn’t feel your performance as a teacher rose to the level of scholarship.”

However, Davis said, it was not until May 21, 2013, almost seven months later, that the provost sent Davis a letter notifying her that she was suspended (with pay) and that the administration would consider terminating her. According to Davis’ testimony, this letter was written in the first-person: “I am placing you on suspension.” Section 603 of the UNC code calls for the provost to write such a letter, but does not give the provost unilateral power to impose sanctions on a professor.

At the hearing, Davis added that neither Provost Allen nor Assistant Provost Letitia Cornish Wall, whom Allen called as a witness, contacted her about the CV problem before suspending her. Both Allen and Wall testified that they did not feel it was necessary to contact Davis—that their independent research had been sufficient.

Furthermore, the hearing took place nine months after Davis received the letter notifying her of her suspension. Davis raised as a point of contention that this was much longer than the time allowed by the UNC code, which is a maximum of 30 days after a written request for a hearing. Although the hearing committee had the option of extending this period to 90 days, according to the UNC Policy Manual, it does not allow for a nine-month delay.

Davis claimed that it cost “$70,000 of taxpayer money to put [her] on administrative leave and to hire adjuncts” to teach the courses she was scheduled to teach last summer.

Davis also argued that she had been “treated differently than other faculty in the promotion process,” and questioned whether her “punishment fit the alleged misconduct.” She said that when a committee charged a fellow political science professor with misconduct, he did not receive similar punishment.

Allen testified that she was struck not only by Davis’ use of the word “book” on her CV, but also the claim that the Louisiana State University Press published the supposed book. Davis responded she never used the word “press” on her CV—that she always writes that her dissertation was published at Louisiana State’s Hill Memorial Library. She emphasized that it was published prior to the Internet age and that libraries classified materials differently back then.

Louisiana State’s library does have copies of her dissertation, “A Multivariate Analysis of Voter Turnout in Louisiana Contested Nonpartisan Judicial Elections, 1981-1988,” categorized both as a “microform” and as a “book.”

Davis spent less time contesting the definition of a book than sending charges back in Allen’s direction. Her allegations were even more disturbing than the administration simply switching Bs to As, as Hedgepeth has charged. According to Davis’ testimony, the administration awarded A grades to students who were not doing any work and failing her class.

As she explained, in the fall of 2012, she was teaching POS 4369—constitutional law, a course that fulfilled a requirement for political science majors. The course began with 17 students but by the end of the semester, most of them were failing the course (two were sophomores who dropped the course). She testified that on November 20, the administration put failing students into an “independent study” section, POS 4330, a course that supposedly lasted from August 30 to December 3.

Students passed with A grades from POS 4330, Davis testified—and some graduated that fall—for what amounted to a one-week semester (Thanksgiving fell during this period). If that is true, it comes at an inopportune time for the UNC system. The situation at Winston-Salem State resembles the scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill, which allowed students to take courses in name only.

Meanwhile, the three students who remained in POS 4369 “were the students who were doing the work” and earned their good grades, according to Davis.

After the Pope Center phoned to ask Allen about Davis’ allegations regarding her constitutional law course, public relations director Nancy Young called back and responded,  “Students were given the opportunity to withdraw.” Those who withdrew, she said, received W marks for the original course. Young said she could not answer whether or not the administration added courses mid-semester, as Davis stated, because of the need for student privacy.

Allen later said in an email to the Pope Center, “…grade disputes and the like are the purview of the faculty, chairs and deans.” Moreover, she said, she “cannot comment on the specifics of any student, faculty or staff issue. Suffice it to say that UNC policy obligated me to respond to the issues I presented today [during the hearing].”

The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does protect the privacy of individual education records, but does not appear to prevent a public university from disclosing information about the general practice of transferring students from one course to another.

Should the committee decide in the administration’s favor, Davis faces termination of employment.

Davis’ testimony—as well as Hedgepeth’s allegations– call into question the integrity of a university that received a $200,000 grant last March from the UNC administration for meeting its performance goals. Only one other school out of the 16 college campuses matched that achievement in 2013.

(Update, March 13, 2014: Among the several policies under consideration at the university’s March 21, 2014 board meeting, will be an independent study policy. If the requirements had been in place in the fall of 2012, they might have prevented the administration from creating the alleged one-week independent study course. For example, the proposed policy would require “At a minimum, three deliverables (papers, projects, exams, productions, etc.) that will be graded.”)