Thursday, December 25, 2014

Curmie Contender: Complete Disregard for Academic Integrity Edition

I’ve been putting off writing about this topic in the hope that either somebody else would say what I wanted to, or that there’d be a real accounting, so this incident would just sort of win a special Curmie and we could all move on.

Trouble is, that hasn’t happened. Well, Brian Rosenberg’s opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which I do urge you to read in its entirety) came pretty close to articulating Curmie’s thoughts, almost fulfilling the first part of the above criteria. Unfortunately, the moving on has happened, but the accounting hasn’t. So, although the events in question happened for an extended period of time and apparently ended before calendar year 2014, the report detailing the outrage wasn’t released until this fall, so I am exercising executive fiat and declaring the situation eligible for 2014 Curmie consideration.

The topic in question is the revelation that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for a period of 18 years, routed some 3000 students—mostly African-American, roughly half of them athletes—into courses that essentially didn’t exist except for the purpose of granting good grades to under-prepared, lazy, stupid, or otherwise inadequate students. After all, keeping that tight end eligible is far more important than the academic integrity of the entire university, right?

Curmie is especially troubled by the fact that the major news media have glossed over this issue. When the Wainstein report, detailing a positively horrific tale of fraud, deception, collusion, and all-purpose duplicity was released, there was one story in the New York Times. One. And it’s shorter than Curmie’s average blog post. Follow up? Nope.

CNN has been better, but substantial evidence of far-reaching academic fraud at a highly respected university ought to generate a little more interest than simply acknowledging that former football coach Butch Davis, whom anyone with a hint of intellect would be pretty certain is up to his pompous ass in all this, is now whinging that he’s being made a scapegoat. He didn’t know. Uh huh. Believe that, Gentle Reader, and Curmie would like to hook you up with a great opportunity to make a huge amount of money in virtually no time. It involves this Nigerian prince, see, and… oh, never mind.

And that is the crux of the situation. The number of people who knew about this scandalous enterprise—or should have known about it—is absurdly high. We won’t even bother talking about the students, even the most feeble-minded of whom had to know that they weren’t really doing the work, qualitatively or quantitatively, for which they were receiving not merely credit, but A’s and B’s, as necessary. But you’ll never convince me that high-ranking administrators weren’t fully aware of pretty much everything that was going on.

The king and queen of this cesspool are Julius Nyang’oro, the former Chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department, and Deborah Crowder, formerly a non-academic administrator in the department. Nyang’oro became professor of record for a number of phony courses, and obviously knew exactly what was transpiring. Crowder seems to have orchestrated the scheme, even carrying on e-mail conversations with the euphemistically termed “academic counselors” of athletic teams to find out what grades a particular student needed to stay eligible, which was, of course, the only criterion to be applied: ethics be damned.

Here’s the NYT’s Sarah Lyall on one exchange:
For example, in September 2008, Jan Boxill, the academic counselor for the women’s basketball team, sent Ms. Crowder a paper to be graded. [Curmie’s note: And what the hell is a non-academic doing grading papers to begin with?] After promising in an email that “I will try to accommodate as many favors as possible,” Ms. Crowder then expressed some skepticism about the paper.

“Did you say a D will do?” she asked, according to emails released by the university. “I’m only asking because 1, no sources, 2, it has absolutely nothing to do with the assignments for that class and 3. it seems to me to be a recycled paper.”

Ms. Boxill responded, “Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs.”
And that e-mail continues, “I didn’t look at the paper, but figured it was a recycled one as well, but I couldn’t figure out from where.” Yes, really.

Jane Stancill of the News Observer writes that Boxill admitted to “add[ing] some stuff for the intro and conclusion” of a student paper she… um… edited. And she admitted to collusion with Crowder on the case notes above, but claimed it was to help a student graduate, not to maintain athletic eligibility, as if that freaking matters to anyone but ESPN.

It is only fitting that such an obviously corrupt and unethical person, perfectly willing to break every rule of academic integrity to help some idiot jock stay eligible, would be (could I make this up?) the Director of the Parr Center for Ethics (!). Apparently Bernie Madoff was unavailable. Anyway, it seems that the deeply ironic nature of this particular job title finally became too embarrassing even for UNC, and there’s a new interim director. And no, the university won’t say she was removed from the position, because that would imply that they give a shit about academic honesty, and how are we going to recruit stupid athletes if that gets out?

Indeed, a story by Jane Wester in the Daily Tar Heel reports that Boxill is one of nine faculty who faced disciplinary action in the wake of the Wainstein report. “The university fired her unethical ass and sued her for the damage to their reputation” does not, alas, appear in any news story I can find. And whereas Crowder and Nyang’oro have both retired (not sure whether to put scare quotes around that term), Boxill is still listed on the university website as a “Teaching Professor.” She’s an expert in sports ethics, after all. No, really. As Casey Stengel would say, you can look it up. Gentle Reader, if you’re going to giggle uncontrollably like that, we’re just not going to get anywhere.

OK… you get the gist. The particularly troubling part of this whole brouhaha is that no one really seems to care: not the university, not the NCAA, not SACS (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting body). Let’s take these things one at a time. The university lost even plausible deniability long ago. They knew at least the basics of the scheme essentially from the beginning, all the while pretending not to. But Davis was fired primarily for his participation in the affair (one former player claims he was forced to major in African and Afro-American Studies; another said that “everyone” in the athletic department knew of the cheating; Davis is quoted as saying “If you all came here for an education, you should have gone to Harvard.”). That was over three years ago. Side note: Davis had previously received recognition for his team’s high graduation rate. Gee, I wonder how he managed that?

And if “everyone” knew, that means Roy Williams, the head basketball coach, knew, too, and 15 men’s basketball players were identified in the investigation. Williams is still in place, making somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million a year (not counting an estimated half million a year in endorsements). Way to enforce those high standards you talk so much about, UNC.

Crowder and Nyang’oro were allowed to retire rather than being fired long after their guilt became common knowledge, let alone known within the university. Boxill is still there.

More disturbing, perhaps, the university intends to do nothing to the literally thousands of “students” who knowingly and willingly participated in the fraud. They still have their degrees, and there will be no attempt to change that. There are, no doubt, legal and privacy issues at play here, and there may be little the university can do.

But imagine yourself for a moment as a real alumnus or alumna of Chapel Hill, especially if you majored in African and Afro-American Studies and/or were an athlete. You worked hard for that diploma: you took actual courses and wrote your own papers and took exams that tested what you know rather than whether the academic counselor could get a copy of the answer sheet in advance. What’s it worth, now? “Nothing” would actually be exaggerating its value: that degree is so tainted that the assumption will inevitably and perpetually be that you’re a cheater, too. Curmie would certainly think that were he a prospective employer. The conspiracy was simply too virulent and too widespread, and guilt by association is, well, a thing.

The NCAA? Are you kidding? They’re too worried about whether a booster bought a kid a pizza, whether a school’s mascot isn’t PC enough, or whether they can pretend to care about an issue by indignantly over-stepping any real authority to issue absurd penalties. Actually doing something useful, like protecting the integrity of the notion of the “student athlete”? Nah, not so much.

Tom McMillen knows whereof he speaks. I remember him as a really good post player for the University of Maryland’s basketball team when I was in high school. He went on to be a Rhodes Scholar, play in the NBA, and serve three terms in the U.S. Congress before re-districting cost him re-election. Now he’s secretary for the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. Here’s what he has to say: “Kids who are walking out of these schools cannot read. They are getting degrees that are worthless. I think the chink in the armor of the NCAA is that they say you're going to get an education.” David Ridpath of the University of Ohio is more direct: “The NCAA is abdicating their responsibility, and there is a clear and convincing case of academic fraud the NCAA is overlooking.”

Wait, what? The NCAA is a collection of pious frauds who make Tartuffe look like an amateur? Next you’ll tell me water is wet.

And so we move on to SACS. These are the folks who care deeply if your class in Quantum Mechanics has clearly identifiable course objectives (how about “know something about quantum mechanics”?) and whether you quantify how many hours you spend in advising (actually spending those hours is of minimal import; perception is all). But when it comes to, say, 3000 students receiving credit (and good grades) over more than a decade—you know, totally corrupting the entire academic system—SACS, predictably, does bubkes. Well, not quite. They have sent a “warning letter” to the UNC administration. Ooh… the terror!

If nothing else, response to the letter has shown the true colors of the UNC administration. Here’s Provost Jim Dean, as reported by the Raleigh ABC affiliate:
When asked about the accreditation review, UNC Provost Jim Dean told ABC11, “The entire university should not be punished for the academic fraud that went on for nearly 20 years.”

“During that period of time that the report represents, we had about 97,000 students and about 3,000 of those students were engaged at the most in this activity,” said Dean. “So as bad as it was, to say that it represents the whole university is pretty disingenuous.”
Are you freaking kidding me??? That’s what you’ve got, Skippy? Only a little more than 3% of your students received diplomas that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on? That’s your argument? (I suppose we can take some consolation that he didn’t trot out the “everybody does it” excuse.) It might be fun to be Provost at UNC, but Curmie can’t afford the lobotomy.

Here’s where I turn things over to Brian Rosenberg, the President of Macalester College, whom I mentioned early in this piece:
I have read many responses to the report of corruption at Chapel Hill. Some argue that those at the center of the activities were simply trying to help at-risk students, to which my response is that awarding credits and grades without providing instruction is not “help” in any sense that I can accept. In the case of student athletes, I see it as closer to exploitation for the benefit of the university. Some argue that this behavior is widespread among institutions with highly visible Division I sports programs and therefore should provoke no particular surprise or outrage.

I hope that this last claim is untrue. If it is, however, the only way to alter such behavior is to respond with force and clarity when it is uncovered. Reducing the number of athletic scholarships at Chapel Hill, or vacating wins, or banning teams from postseason competition, is in each case a punishment wholly unsuitable to the crime. The crime involves fundamental academic integrity. The response, regardless of the visibility or reputation or wealth of the institution, should be to suspend accredited status until there is evidence that an appropriate level of integrity is both culturally and structurally in place.

Anything less would be dismissive of the many institutions whose transcripts actually have meaning.

There are still some chances that something might get done: a congressional inquiry into NCAA practices, an allegation that the paper courses violated Title IX because students were overwhelmingly male and Title VI because they were overwhelmingly black…. And who know, SACS might actually do their job, although they conspicuously failed to do so when the scandal first broke in early 2013. But Curmie isn’t holding his breath.

But the chances of a Curmie nomination are 100%. That’s something, I suppose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OK, here is some background from a UNC alum.

When this first came out, I saw that this scheme was discovered by a different professor. He was checking (correcting?) a grade after the semester ended and noticed the name of a prominent athlete on his roll. Unfortunately, that athlete had not been in his class. Someone added the student with a grade after the semester grades had been entered. The professor demanded an investigation and it led back to the head of the Afro-American studies department's login credentials adding the student and the grade. Note that no investigation on how common this was has been published.

A faculty member was fired just a few years ago for publishing a study that claimed that a large percentage of the athletes were completely unprepared academically to the point that many could barely read. The University claims she did not receive permission to publish the research (since when do faculty members require permission to publish research findings?).

It was strongly rumored that the geography department (yes, they have a geography major) has a requirement that all faculty must furnish their exams and answer keys to the athletic tutors at least 1 week before the exams so the athletes can 'prepare'. Now you can see why so many UNC athletes have majored in geography.

When you look at the faculty comments about this scandal, it gets scarier, Many seemed convinced this is a good thing. Many of these athletes were crumbling under a full-time academic load. They just couldn't handle it. They aren't allowed to take a lesser load and spread college out over more semesters because of NCAA and financial aid rules. So, the faculty determined that letting them go part-time while still appearing to be full-time (by using fake classes) was justified for affirmative action-type purposes. They knew what was going on and didn't just think of it as a necessary evil, they thought of it as good and just. These students can't handle the load and they need a 'chance' at a college degree, so here is how we can get them a degree

It is no coincidence that this is running through the Afro-American Studies department. No one at UNC can touch the Afro-American studies department, though. If anyone had tried to stop this behavior internally, they would have been charged with racism. The news media would have had headlines "Administrative Action Against Afro-American Studies Department Racially Motivated, Department Head Claims". There would have been mass student protests. Just look at what happened when they were denied a free-standing black cultural center at the space they demanded. Those protests and the bad press went on for years.

As for who paid the price, H. Holden Thorp paid the price. A brilliant chemist who became chancellor at 43, Thorp had no method of stopping such activity even if he had known about it. If you doubt it, look at what happened. The chancellor had to step down, the basketball coach still is employed. This is in spite of the fact that the chancellor was both a Thorp and a Holden. Do you really think he resigned voluntarily as Chancellor of UNC, where his family and his business ventures are to become Provost of Washington University in St. Louis? That tells you how much power athletics has over academia today.