Now that a fuller picture has emerged about UNC-Chapel Hill’s paper class scheme, a regional accrediting agency is launching a second review of the university with the watchwords "Trust but verify."
This week, a letter will be sent to UNC-CH officials informing them of the new probe, said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges. The review will focus on the findings of the Oct. 22 Wainstein report, which revealed nearly two decades of academic fraud, including hundreds of fake independent studies and no-show classes in African and Afro-American Studies taken by more than 3,100 students.
The scope of the academic misdeeds is unlike anything Wheelan said she’d seen.
"It is huge," she said. "It’s bigger than anything with which we’ve dealt before. … I just don’t know in what direction the board is going to go."
The review is likely to go on for months. The agency’s board probably won’t make any decisions until June of next year.
That means UNC-CH will again be under extended scrutiny by its accrediting body, which acted in 2012 to require extensive monitoring reports after the scandal first emerged. The board found deficiencies in UNC-CH’s compliance with its standards for academic policies, student services, student records and class credit hours. It required UNC-CH to offer students and graduates, at no cost, courses to make up for the phony classes.
No graduates returned for the classes, but about a dozen students took another course, because the AFAM courses in question could not count toward a diploma.
It’s unclear how the commission will approach the new information from the Wainstein report, which documents a much more extensive pattern of fraudulent classes in which students had no contact with faculty. A department office manager was grading student papers and giving them high grades for little to no work.
The revelations prompted the president of Macalester College in Minnesota to pen an Op-Ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education calling for the suspension of UNC-CH’s accreditation. Accreditation is vital because it’s required for universities to receive federal funding; colleges that have lost accreditation have gone out of business.
"Any accrediting agency that would overlook a violation of this magnitude would both delegitimize itself and appear hopelessly hypocritical if it attempted, now or in the future, to threaten or sanction institutions – generally those with much less wealth and influence – for violations much smaller in scale," Macalester President Brian Rosenberg wrote. "If falsified grades and transcripts for more than 3,000 students over more than a decade are viewed as anything other than an egregious violation of those standards, my response to the whole accreditation process is simple: Why bother?"
UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt said she had talked with about two dozen presidents of major universities, none of whom suggested such an outcome.
"I actually think that was a pretty outrageous assertion from a president," Folt said. "I think maybe he didn’t understand that we’ve already been through this with SACS in principle and spent three years undergoing major review and putting in more than 70 different processes that they have approved."
She said she and UNC-CH’s provost, Jim Dean, had visited the accrediting officials in recent weeks to brief them. UNC also sent them the Wainstein report in October.
Folt: SACS ‘appreciative’
"They’ve been very appreciative," Folt said of the SACS commission. "They say that we have been doing everything one should do, of course, to work with your accrediting agency. So I feel very confident that we can really work with them in a productive way."
This time around, though, the accrediting agency may look more closely at UNC-CH’s own documentation.
One contributor to UNC-CH’s previous monitoring reports for the agency, Bobbi Owen, was identified by Wainstein as an administrator who knew in 2005 or 2006 that there were hundreds of independent studies under Julius Nyang’oro, the former AFAM chairman. The report said Owen went to lunch with Nyang’oro to crack down on the proliferation of independent studies and told him to "rein in" Deborah Crowder, the department manager who ran the scheme.
Owen told the Wainstein team she did not remember such a meeting or concerns about the number of independent studies in AFAM, the report said. She did say she had raised alarms about Crowder signing grade change forms for Nyang’oro and recalled conversations with an athletics official about the propriety of AFAM lecture courses that were conducted as independent studies.
Wainstein’s report faulted Owen for taking little or no action when red flags appeared. Owen’s "inexplicable decision" not to press the issue about the independent studies allowed the paper class scheme to go on for five more years, the report said.
Owen is a distinguished professor in dramatic art but no long senior associate dean. She could not be reached for comment Monday. An automatic email reply said she was on research leave.
A UNC-CH spokewoman said Owen is on "Senior Faculty Research and Scholarly Leave" during this semester. The competitive paid leave was awarded in January and is covered by various endowed funds, according to a UNC-CH website. Owen’s current annual salary is $138,669.
Owen is a key figure
She has been a key figure in assembling reports for UNC-CH’s accreditation requirements for years.
In 2005, she headed up the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan required for 10-year accreditation review by SACS. In a 2004 story published by the University Gazette, an employee newspaper, Owen discussed the importance of accreditation reviews: "It provides the chance to review all the documents and guidelines surrounding the academic programs to confirm we are doing what we are saying we are doing regarding degree programs as well as to look at an area in depth."
Owen was also chairwoman of UNC-CH’s Independent Study Task Force, which made recommendations about how to reform the system. She responded to trustees who had questions about the irregular classes in 2012. When describing how students ended up in the AFAM classes, she said: "Word of mouth is potent. Students drift to places where they understand they will be accommodated."
Integrity is a core principle of the accreditation agency, and any review in higher education is based on trust, said Andrew Westmoreland, chairman of the SACS Commission on Colleges and president of Samford University in Alabama.
"That’s what so much of this hangs on as we review our institutions," Westmoreland said. "So when there is an erosion of integrity, it ultimately places in jeopardy other elements of the process. Certainly that’s a major concern. What is the phrase, trust but verify? I think that probably applies here."
Westmoreland said he has confidence that UNC-CH’s administration will cooperate fully with the detailed review process ahead. He said he has been encouraged that university leaders have recently shown a willingness to get to the bottom of the fraud.
"This is certainly a unique case," he said. "Frankly, all of us in higher education have been heartbroken as the full story has emerged."