Students get graded by their professors, but who grades the professors?
That question has bubbled up following the revelation that for years, students signed up for dozens of classes in UNC Chapel Hill’s African and Afro-American Studies Department but received little or no instruction from a professor. Some of the classes were heavily populated by athletes.
A faculty panel on Thursday called for an independent commission of higher education experts to examine the balance between athletics and academics at the university. The subcommittee described an atmosphere of distrust on a campus “with two cultures” and a lack of oversight of administrators who run academic departments.
The faculty panel had combed through a May internal university review that identified 54 such courses – including 45 under Julius Nyang’oro, a former professor and department chairman who is now at the center of a fraud probe by the State Bureau of Investigation. Nyang’oro has declined to talk with reporters about his classes.
Nyang’oro – as department chairman – was not subject to the five-year cycle of evaluation for senior professors known as post-tenure review.
“That was a further check and balance that did not take place,” said Jonathan Hartlyn, a UNC senior associate dean who helped conduct the review of the African and Afro-American Studies department. Hartlyn spoke recently to a separate UNC system panel that is reviewing the campus probe, which zeroed in on the actions of Nyang’oro and Deborah Crowder, a former office manager in the department.
University officials won’t disclose the date of Nyang’oro’s last review, citing personnel privacy rules, though UNC did release other personnel data about the professor in its review of the department.
Despite policies governing teaching practices, Hartlyn said, the problems in the African and Afro-American Studies department escaped attention. “Our system did not anticipate a situation where both the chair and the manager could have been involved in the irregularities,” Hartlyn said.
Universities are large decentralized places, where individual academic departments exercise a certain amount of freedom to create courses, assign professors and conduct work independently. And the principles of academic freedom give professors a wide swath to determine what they teach and how they go about it.
That may help explain the gaps that led to what UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp has called “a terrible case of academic fraud” that seriously threatened the university’s integrity.
The university’s reputation took a hit, Thorp said, and students were shortchanged, too. “None of these students in these classes got the quality of educational experience that we expect all Carolina students to get,” he said, “and that is absolutely not OK.”
The overwhelming majority of faculty perform to the high standards the public and tuition-paying students expect, said Karen Gil, dean of UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“I certainly trust the basic integrity of our courses and our faculty, and believe they’re doing their jobs,” Gil told the UNC system panel. “But it has been a struggle for us, as you know. It has been difficult to convince people that that is true.”
Campus officials say the problem was confined to one department, and new procedures are in place to guard against such rogue courses, including better monitoring of teaching assignments and new rules governing independent study courses.
The UNC case has highlighted concerns by critics who claim the tenure system can lead to abuse by faculty who are granted what amounts to a lifetime job guarantee. Some suggest that there should be more oversight of the nearly 14,000 faculty who teach in the state’s 16 public universities.