Chapel Hill, N.C. — In May, an internal investigation at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed unauthorized grades, forged signatures and other irregularities in 54 courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.
The probe started in September 2011 following published reports that claimed plagiarism and other discrepancies on a course paper written by former Tar Heels football player Michael McAdoo. The paper, submitted to professor Julius Nyang’oro, was revealed to be largely reproduced from other sources.
Of the 54 courses in question from the start of the summer session in 2007 to the end of the summer session in 2011, Nyang’oro taught 43, and many of the students enrolled were athletes.
Athletes enrolled in independent study
The UNC internal report, however, only covered lecture courses. WRAL News looked at data about independent study courses offered by the department and found additional red flags – lots of athletes with the potential for earning twice the credit offered by other departments for similar work.
An independent study is defined as a class in which a student is doing in-depth work outside of the classroom with supervision from a faculty member. UNC's review did mention a problem with how independent studies were tracked in the African and Afro-American Studies Department, but it didn't go in-depth about those issues.
In the first summer session of 2010, six students were registered for an independent study course in the department. All were members of the UNC football or men's basketball team. In the second session, an independent study of 11 students had eight football or men's basketball players.
WRAL identified nine courses over four years where enrollment seemed out of the ordinary:
- AFAM 396 Summer 2nd session 2007: 7 total students enrolled; 0 current or former football and/or men’s basketball players
- AFRI 396 Summer 2nd session 2007: 16 total students enrolled, 8 current or former football and/or men’s basketball players
- AFAM 396 Summer 1st session 2008: 4 total students enrolled; 1 current or former football and/or men’s basketball players
- AFRI 396 Summer 2nd session 2008: 13 total students enrolled; 2 current or former football and/or men’s basketball players
- AFRI 396 Fall 2008: 9 total students enrolled; 4 current or former football and/or men’s basketball players
- AFAM 396 Summer 1st session 2009: 2 total students enrolled; 0 current or former football and/or men’s basketball players
- AFRI 396 Summer 1st session 2009: 4 total students enrolled; 3 current or former football and/or men’s basketball players
- AFAM 396 Summer 1st session 2010: 6 total students enrolled; 6 current or former football and/or men’s basketball players
- AFRI 396 Summer 2nd session 2010: 11 total students enrolled; 8 current or former football and/or men’s basketball players
Lloyd Kramer, chairman of the UNC History Department, said the number of enrollees alone would be cause for concern. "That would be very unusual in our department. That would raise red flags," he said.
"Typically, there would be one or, at most, two students doing an independent course with a faculty member. At least in our department that's the usual course arrangement," Kramer said.
The numbers also seemed high to Jay Smith, a professor in the history department. I more than 20 years at UNC, Smith said he has only taught two independent study courses with one student each.
Smith also raised concerns about the number of athletes in some of the courses.
"You wonder how those athletes wound up in that course, what they were doing when they got there, what purpose that particular course was serving in their own academic schedules," he said.
It appears at least some players were taking independent studies courses outside of their major.
The UNC football media guide lists only five members of the 2012 team as majors in African and Afro-American Studies. Three had switched into that department after their junior year.
WRAL News was unable to reach any of the former players to ask if they had taken the independent studies classes.
Both Kramer and Smith say it's not terribly common for students to take independent study courses outside of their major, but it does happen if a student has a particular interest.
"That in itself is not unusual, provided there is a good intellectual reason," Smith said.
Course credit double the norm
Students in independent study classes offered through the Department of African and Afro-American Studies could earn up to six credit hours, double the normal amount offered by most departments.
In the nine courses WRAL News looked into, 72 students were enrolled; 43 percent (31 students) were football players and one was a basketball player. Twelve students got more than three credit hours for their work. The school says five of those 12 were current or former football players. The basketball player got the more standard three credit hours.
UNC has blamed problems in the department on Nyang'oro, the former chairman who retired in July, and his former administrative assistant. Neither has been available to answer questions about the courses.
Apparently, the department listed multiple independent studies students under a single instructor, even if other instructors actually supervised the students. That makes it difficult to determine which instructors were involved with independent study courses. WRAL News tried to contact the instructors listed as having taught the courses, including the new chairman of African and Afro-American Studies but did not hear back from them.
"I'm anxious to know a lot more about what happened in these courses," Smith said. "What kind of work was performed, how the university even knows the work was turned in."
UNC leaders have repeatedly said they don't believe questionable classes in the department were set up specifically to help athletes because non-athletes were also enrolled.
Amid the questions about how and why the department managed the course, the university has added policies regarding independent studies to try and keep this from happening again. Now, faculty members are no longer allowed to supervise more than two independent study students per term. An independent study now requires a contract to detail what is expected from the student and instructor.
Kramer said he is concerned the lingering questions hurt the credibility of hard-working faculty at UNC and classes intended to be some of the most rigorous.
"I feel like the fallout from these abuses could undermine something that is a legitimate and valuable part of the intellectual experience of many students," he said.