Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Anatomy of a Paper Class

As the News & Observer reported, the athletes at the University of North Carolina took to calling her “Professor Debby.”
She wasn’t a professor, of course. She was hired as a “student services manager,” a form of administrative assistant in the African and Afro-American Studies department. She worked there for three decades. 

But Crowder masterminded the 18-year bogus class scheme that was laid out in breathtaking detail [in October] by Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor whose team interviewed 126 people and plowed through 1.6 million electronic documents in search of the truth behind the scandal in Chapel Hill. 

People [are] still reeling...from what Wainstein had revealed. They wondered: How could one office manager perpetrate a fraud that has dealt this punishing blow to the reputation of the nation’s oldest public university? 

How could Crowder have set up hundreds of illegitimate independent studies and classes that never met? How could she have cultivated such a following that more than 3,100 students and athletes slipped into the fake classes? And how did she retire in 2009 without ever having been caught for such a spectacular scam?
Surely, part of the answer lies in a human dynamic we all know well. What does one do with information that could prove damaging to the institution one loves? In this case, a faculty leader at UNC-Chapel Hill watered down a 2012 report into academic fraud to lessen the chances the NCAA would come back to campus. According to university correspondence...

Faculty Council Chairman Jan Boxill sent...three faculty authors a last-minute email. It suggested they rewrite a sentence that painted a picture of a department manager creating bogus classes to protect athletes’ eligibility to play sports.
Jan Boxill

The authors grudgingly agreed to it, and some key information disappeared from the final version.

Boxill wrote that the request came from other faculty on the council’s executive committee. “The worry is that this could further raise NCAA issues and that is not the intention,” she said in the email.
One can identify with the external pressures and internal conflicts individuals must have felt at the time, but as the faculty's elected leader, knowingly obfuscating an athletic motive behind the scandal was totally inappropriate. As Faculty Council Chair, Boxill was one of UNC’s top academic officials. 

Boxill, 74, began teaching at UNC in 1985, but she had also been involved nearly as long in advising athletes. A former women’s basketball coach at the University of Tampa, Boxill became an academic counselor to UNC athletes in 1988 and has served as a broadcaster of the university’s women’s basketball games. She is senior lecturer in the philosophy department, and her expertise includes ethics in sports.

Because of the murky report, the offense would remain hidden for months and months. More facts are emerging as this week two former UNC athletes filed a lawsuit against their alma mater and the NCAA, seeking class-action status, and damages for academic fraud.
The suit alleges that ...
Julius Nyang' oro
From 1989 to 2011, NCAA member school UNC furnished academically unsound classes that provided deficient educational instruction to thousands of students—chief among them nearly 2,000 college athletes. UNC offered dozens of sham “paper classes” that were designed not to educate but rather to maintain UNC’s student-athletes’ academic eligibility—i.e., to keep them on the field. And over time these paper classes calcified into a “shadow curriculum” in which no course attendance was required and no faculty were involved. 
AFAM Student Services Manager Deborah Crowder, an administrator who was not a member of the faculty, first conceived of UNC’s paper classes, under the supervision of AFAM Chair Julius Nyang’oro. In or around 1989, Crowder initiated a series of independent studies courses and invited enrollment from student-athletes. Unlike traditional independent studies classes at UNC, no faculty member was involved in managing the courses or supervising students' research and writing. In fact, the student-athletes who enrolled in paper classes never had a single interaction with a faculty member; their only interaction was with Crowder. During much of the Class Period, Crowder managed these paper classes from beginning to end, but she provided the students with no actual instruction. She registered the selected students for the classes; she assigned them their paper topics; she received their completed papers at the end of the semester; she graded the papers; and she recorded the students’ final class grades on the grade rolls. 

In this September 2008 email exchange...Crowder and women's basketball academic counselor Jan Boxill discuss an essay grade for a women's basketball player:  
Crowder: As long as I am here I will try to accommodate as many favors as possible. Did you say a D will do for [basketball player]? I'm only asking that 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. She took AFRI in spring of 2007 and that was likely for that class. 

Boxill: Yes, a D will be fine; that's all she needs. I didn't look at the paper but figured it was a recycled one as well, but I couldn't figure from where! Thanks for whatever you can do.
If a D is freely given for plagiarism, one wonders what kind of work earns an A?

UNC learning-specialist-turned-whistleblower Mary Willingham detailed how these paper classes worked. The classes, which were listed as "independent studies" in the course book, had no attendance, and students got credit for writing papers that always got either A's or B's. 

Willingham, who called the paper classes "scam classes," showed ESPN a writing sample of work one UNC athlete drafted for an introductory class in African American studies. It's a one-paragraph, 146-word "final paper" on Rosa Parks. 

Here's the text:
On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the white people section on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. "Let me have those front seats" said the driver. She didn't get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. "I'm going to have you arrested," said the driver. "You may do that," Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them "why do you all push us around?" The police officer replied and said "I don't know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest.
Former former UNC football player Deunta Williams told ESPN...
Williams: I think the coaches knew enough to understand what was going on. I think they knew about the system itself. And if a guy was in trouble, the immediate response was why not put him in a paper class where he can receive help. Get an A or a B out of this class for writing a good paper.
[Camera cuts to Willingham holding out the one-paragraph paper]
Willingham: This is not even close to college work, yet this athlete was awarded an A-.
This week's suit alleges that "from 1999 to 2011—at the encouragement and instruction of UNC athletic staff, faculty, academic-support counselors, and administrators—UNC football players enrolled in 963 AFAM paper classes; UNC men’s basketball players enrolled in 226 AFAM paper classes; UNC women’s basketball players enrolled in 114 AFAM paper classes.; and numerous other UNC student-athletes took many more such courses—all with no class attendance or meaningful faculty involvement. Those statistics do not include the number of student-athletes who took AFAM paper classes designed by Crowder and designated as “independent studies” though they had no faculty involvement."

“The faculty committee should not anticipate the audience or implications, 
but rather fulfill the charge they undertook” 
--- John Thelin, UK Professor and author of Games Colleges Play

Is there a UofL connection to the UNC story? Stay tuned.

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