Paul L. Caron

Monday, October 27, 2014

President of Macalester College Calls for University of North Carolina to Lose its Accreditation Over Academic Fraud Scandal

Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed:  UNC-Chapel Hill Should Lose Accreditation, by Brian Rosenberg (President, Macalester College):

UNCThe revelations from the report on the academic-fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been startling: More than 3,000 students over a period of 18 years were awarded grades and credit for nonexistent courses.

But much of what has been said and written to date about the extraordinary failures in ethics and oversight seems to miss both the seriousness of the misbehavior and the extent to which it strikes at the core of any college or university.

This is not chiefly an athletics issue, though the students involved are disproportionately intercollegiate athletes. Nor is it primarily a matter for the NCAA, which is more a cause of than a solution to the problem of athletics in American higher education.

This is an issue of institutional integrity, a violation of the most basic assumption upon which the credibility of any college or university is based: that the grades and credits represented on the transcripts of its students are an accurate reflection of the work actually done. Absent this assurance, a transcript—a degree—from the institution has lost its meaning.

What has been uncovered in the Wainstein report at Chapel Hill is not an isolated incident but a barely concealed process of falsification that persisted for well over a decade, involved more than one in five of all the university’s athletes during that period, and was either known to or willfully ignored by many officials in positions of responsibility. ...

I have little interest in whatever penalties the NCAA chooses to impose upon Chapel Hill’s athletics programs or that the university chooses to impose upon itself. As I said, this is not fundamentally an issue about sports but about the basic academic integrity of an institution. 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.

Most of us work very hard to conform to the standards imposed by our regional accrediting agencies and the federal government. 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? ...

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.

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Really MWR, how sad is it for you that you cannot recognize that there exist many benefits to college outside of the studies in a particular class. As I stated, a couple of classes on an entire transcript are not going to skew the academic achievements of troubled students. If you look at the cumulative impact of these classes it is negligible even at the individual level of a student that took them. There exist many other classes by which to judge a student’s educational achievements. So I do not think an abhorrent few classes turns the transcript into a fraud. The idea that UNC should lose its accreditation based on some disconnect between work/grades is asinine at the level that UNC was culpable. What happened at UNC is terrible, but its actual impact is little or nothing. We hold the Ivies in high esteem regardless of their rampant grade inflation, based in large part on their total body of work. Second, who cares that the classes never met? Is that the standard for a legitimate class? Because, I think you would find many classes at many institutions never meet. These are called independent studies. As the report said there was not one instance where a student received a passing grade yet failed to turn in the required paper. So the idea that a student should be punished and have their transcript called fraudulent by the likes of you is asinine and disgusting. If we are going to start down the road of parsing rigorous curriculum from easy, then I suggest many schools brace themselves for loss of accreditation.

As to Tom’s ridiculous post, maybe he should read up on whistleblower laws, what Mary Willingham was claiming, the actions she took accessing records, and what the University/NCAA/SACS was doing before she said anything.

There is an honest debate to be had regarding the how this came to occur. It saddens me that people I knew did these actions. But the hyperbolic knee-jerk reactions from Rosenberg and the like do nothing to further that debate.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 29, 2014 5:41:51 AM

I took a class in the AFAM department and found it to be a bad joke, and that was after the supposed scandal period. If every department at UNC was like AFAM (they aren't, by a longshot), I would agree that it shouldn't be an accredited institution.

Posted by: aceofspudz | Oct 28, 2014 5:30:26 PM

The purpose of accreditation is to encourage universities to maintain certain minimum standards. 99.9% of the faculty, students and administrators at UNC have done so, and UNC has many highly rated and academically rigorous programs.

Does anyone really think that the engineering program or the medical school or the nursing school should suffer because a few athletes and greeks chased down easy A's in the African American Studies department?

Do you think any employers or graduate schools take an "A" in African American American Studies or Gender Studies or Insert-whatever-indentity-group-here studies seriously? These programs give out easy A's at every institution that offers them. So do most departments in the humanities. Everyone knows they are about self-esteem and not academic rigor, and no one takes them seriously anyway.

UNC clearly takes academic integrity seriously. They've already fired the individuals responsible. They commissioned an internal investigation. As long as UNC continues to make efforts to clean up the mess now that it's been brought to light, and prevent similar problems from recurring, disacreditation is a pointless overreaction.

If you work in a university, why would you ever know or care what goes on in another school or department? Most people don't even know what goes on in their colleagues' classrooms in their own department.

Posted by: Baseball Fan | Oct 28, 2014 5:04:22 PM

This is how UNC fixes the problem - - deny, deny, deny. Shut them down. They should pay for and submit to a full audit of the past 20 years from an unbiased party and any dept found to have allowed cheating should lose accreditation. Many students are suspended or expelled from college for dishonorable behavior, expel the university from its accreditation.

Posted by: tom | Oct 28, 2014 3:22:17 PM

Isn't the guiding concept here 'too big to fail'?
How much more treasure is in UNC than Bear Stearns?

Posted by: Carmelo | Oct 28, 2014 10:31:16 AM

Barry, you should actually read the report and the reams of information that is out there on the matter. Additionally, as meh pointed out, everyone involved but Jay Smith has been fired or resigned. Again, this was allowed to happen because schools have a liberal policy of respecting classes approved by a department chair. It is the same situation across universities. UNC discovered the irregularities and then commenced to spending millions on asking how it happened. How many schools have or are willing to do that thorough of an investigation. In reality, UNC could have clammed up and taken care of things internally, like every other school does when faced with improprieties. For some ill-conceived reason, the former chancellor thought it best to commence to public shaming, and tried to pin this as an athletic scandal. All he succeeded in doing was disparaging the athletic department and dragging out the embarassment for the academic side.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 28, 2014 9:12:29 AM

These actions were seen as helping students achieve the dream of college education. Because at the end of the day, the piece of paper can mean so much more than mere work/grade equivalents.

This is possibly the silliest, most asinine thing I've ever read. The piece of paper means nothing if the "work/grade equivalents" are falsified, inflated or otherwise blatantly incorrect.

I ask you to reverse the situation: what if a university, department, or individual professor decided to deliberately LOWER a student's or group of students' grades? Maybe to take them down a notch, or to allow for another student or group of students to feel better about themselves because the "smart kids" didn't look so smart anymore? Would you support this kind of grade manipulation? It's no different than what UNC did, after all. Though what UNC did was demonstrably worse, since many of the classes inculcated in the scandal didn't ever meet. It's one thing to lower a grade for a student in a class; it's another thing entirely to give a student a grade for a class that never really existed.

But hey, Daniel, A+ for effort.

Posted by: MWR | Oct 28, 2014 8:28:27 AM

should be to suspend accredited status

Unfortunately, this act would also punish 30,000 innocent students.

Posted by: OldCurmudgeon | Oct 28, 2014 8:26:38 AM

"Why stop at revoking the institution's accreditation for something a small handful of middle managers (who have already been fired) did five years ago?"

Please read the article. This involved thousands of atheletes, and was an open secret, at best. The university upper management knew about this. And it happened over many, many years.

Posted by: Barry | Oct 28, 2014 8:13:40 AM

But then every other football program with a college or university attached would have to lose its accreditation as well.

Posted by: mark tomeo | Oct 28, 2014 7:33:41 AM

President Rosenberg needs to do a little background work before opining on a subject he knows little about. At first, he correctly points out that this was an academic matter and then tries to shoehorn college athletes into the picture with wrong facts. I love when ivory tower academics try to blame athletes for problems created by the academic system. What occurred at UNC was allowed to happen because of the autonomy that universities give their professors and department chairs. You do not question the classes a department chair allows. His writing illustrates the disconnect between academics, the leaders of universities, and reality. Ask any student on any college campus about easy classes, easy A’s, etc., and I am sure you will find that this work/grade correlation posited by Mr. Rosenberg is merely a white whale.

Maybe if Mr. Rosenberg spent some time and got to know the actors involved in this matter he may change his mind. I knew several of the professors, admins, and advisors involved in this matter. I took a number of classes in the Afam department at UNC. I loved those classes, and was challenged to look at this world in ways that my poli sci, history, and philosophy classes never brought out. His bio says he champions the common good. Which is highly ironic considering these classes were put in place to help students in danger of losing out on the college experience. And no Mr. Rosenberg, not just athletes. These actions were seen as helping students achieve the dream of college education. Because at the end of the day, the piece of paper can mean so much more than mere work/grade equivalents. An abhorrent A or two in an entire college career is but a tempest in a teapot. More likely than not, the remainder of the students grades will reflect their achievements, or lack thereof, in college.

Additionally, Mr. Rosenberg says that accreditation should be suspended till reforms are proven. Maybe if he had done the slightest bit of reading, he would have seen all the steps UNC has taken to provide additional oversight and accountability. UNC has spent 4 years and millions of dollars investigating itself and implementing reforms. Perhaps, Mr. Rosenberg should have done a little more work in preparing this op-ed for the echo chamber of academia. Even at UNC, his writing would not have received an A.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 28, 2014 6:06:59 AM

Why the sarcasm? UNC clearly deserves to lose its accreditation if accreditation is to have any meaning whatsoever. If it's time to reflect on anything, it's the lack of the integrity that would enable colleges to stand up to pressures to dumb down their curriculum and pass unqualified students. Who are these gutless wonders, how were they raised and how can we hire fewer (or none) of them?

Posted by: Jonathan | Oct 28, 2014 5:59:49 AM

Why stop at revoking the institution's accreditation for something a small handful of middle managers (who have already been fired) did five years ago?

Clearly capital punishment for everyone who has ever worked at the institution is in order. That will show them!

In all seriousness, this should be a time to reflect more broadly on the pressures that lead colleges to reduce academic rigour, and not a time to point fingers or scream for blood.

I'm sure if we looked at the academic offerings at any college, even this fellow's, we'd find some courses that seem questionable offering grades that seem too high.

Posted by: meh | Oct 27, 2014 4:39:22 PM

I agree with President Rosenberg. Accreditation has little meaning if a university can retain accreditation following this kind of egregious misconduct.

Posted by: Publius Novus | Oct 27, 2014 11:27:34 AM