Examining the AFAM Mess and "Lingering Questions"

Somewhat buried in the breathless headlines about one of UNC's notorious Afro-American Studies classes being taught by Julius Nyang'oro and filled with almost entirely football players is this list of all 54 questionable courses discovered in the university's investigation into the department.

The list is divided into two parts: the nine "aberrant" courses in which there appears to be no records, syllabi, or instruction; or which were not authorized or grades appear to have been changed. In other words, these are the really, really bad ones. The other 45 classes are termed "irregular" in which there are questions about the grading, method of delivery, or other issues which sent up red flags to investigators.

A cursory look at the aberrant courses reveals three things: first, all but one of the classes took place in summer school sessions in 2007, 2008, and 2009; second, all of the courses were taught by adjunct professors (i.e., not full-time faculty members) or by "staff", which generally means teaching assistants or low-ranking instructors; and third, all of the classes were introductory-level classes.

Given these parameters, it is easy to see why there has been so much discussion of the "rogue administrative assistant" defense. Deborah Crowder worked in the AFAM department office before she retired in 2009, and as such would have had access to the paperwork necessary for these courses to be filed and dates and grades to be changed. In addition, after her retirement, the "aberrant" courses stopped. I'm not saying I buy this 100%, but at least you can see what it looks like on the surface. For her part, Crowder is the Jennifer Wiley of the AFAM investigation in that she refuses to provide information or talk to investigators.

As for the 45 "irregular" courses, Julius Nyang'oro is the professor of record for 30 of them; in fact, he is the only listed professor, as the other 15 courses are listed as "staff". Again, not to make too much of the "rogue" defense, but when there is only one listed, full-time professor involved and he is involved in 2/3 of the irregular courses, you can make the argument for a pattern. And speaking of patterns, something else observed in the "irregular" courses is that the same ones appear over and over. For example, AFAM 428, Bioethics in Afro-American Studies (the famous course Marvin Austin took prior to his freshman year), shows up 9 times in the 45 irregular courses, and all but one are taught by Nyang'oro. In those 9 classes, 128 of the students were non-athletes, and 124 were athletes. So is it possible that Nyang'oro was just shamming his teaching responsibilities, and not creating opportunities to keep athletes, particularly football players, eligible?

Along those lines, there has been much made of the infamous class in Summer 2011 where Nyang'oro received $12,000 in extra duty stipend for teaching a class if it had 18 enrollees. Nyang'oro waved off the scheduled instructor, misled the dean about the enrollment, opened the class for only two days of registration and magically 18 football players (and one former football player) enrolled for what turned out to be a class with no scheduled meetings and one final paper. Once again, is this fraud designed to benefit athletes, or is it fraud designed to put $12,000 in Nyang'oro's pocket? Sounds more to me like he figured out how he could score a quick payday and knew someone in athletic academic advising who could get him 18 enrollments and fast. Isn't it such a coincidence that he needed 18 students and got exactly 18 football players? And while it certainly bears scrutiny given the academic and athletic situation at UNC, no one is talking about the irregular course immediately preceding this one, an AFAM 428 course that was made up entirely of non-athletes.

The money question here, and what the university will have to determine, is whether or not courses were offered and grades changed or instruction conducted in such a way as to make direct benefit to athletes. The numbers shown in the 54 courses include about 40% non-athletes, so that will be a difficult case to prove.

But that's not to say that the News and Observer's Dan "I'm not saying, I'm just saying" Kane won't give it a try. Kane posted a piece on Saturday that states "questions linger" in the case and makes some specious connections as in his usual style. Kane offers up some questions and here are some possible answers to what he poses in the article:

Is it about athletics? The short answer would seem to be, at least as it relates to AFAM, probably not. He notes that 42% of the enrollment in questionable classes is by non-athletes and that the NCAA "only probes cases in which the intent is to provide improper academic assistance solely to athletes". He then follows up by saying, "But there’s little other evidence to back the claim up." Really, Dan? While athletes are clearly a majority of the enrollment, the fact that 42% are not related to sports by definition provides reason to believe otherwise. Forty-two percent is not a token number, it is a significant number.

What contradictory information? Kane states UNC has given contradictory information, when what he really means is incomplete information. He whines that UNC never said four of the classes had only athletes enrolled and says there should be five since the last one had a former football player not counted as an athlete. Well guess what, Dan, there were seven of the 54 classes in which there were no athletes. Did UNC highlight that, either? Kane then pulls a classic "I'm not saying" move by implying UNC steered the former football player to the AFAM class in order to boost graduation rates and pulls in a non sequitur reference to the University of Connecticut basketball team's upcoming ineligibility for poor graduation rates.

Is this about basketball? Kane throws a bone to every WuffLoon's dream that somehow this will all tie back to basketball, but the evidence is thin. Again, the answer is probably not, given that there are only 23 enrollments by basketball players. He uses some pretty convoluted math to say that it could mean as many as 1 in 3 basketball players could have been involved, but given how spread out the basketball enrollments are and that there are only two classes in which more than one basketball player is enrolled, this is likely to be a coincidental connection. Kane again puts on his best "I'm not saying" mode when he notes that two of the courses have a single basketball player as the only student in the class and that since they were language classes, how could the player have practiced speaking since there were no other students in the class? My favorite response was in the N&O comments section, when someone asked if Kane had ever heard of Rosetta Stone.

Why just the past four years? Kane pretty much answers his own question here, saying, "Little evidence has surfaced so far to peg the problem beyond the reviewed period."

What's not released? Kane says, "The university has not made available the grades given to all of the students enrolled in these suspect classes, or said how many passed or failed. It has not released any of the work students performed." You will notice Kane is not whining here; student grades and copies of student work are clearly protected under FERPA and the chances of seeing that information are slim. Kane goes on to add that the State Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal activity, such as whether Nyang'oro committed fraud by not teaching courses he was supposed to teach. The academic side is likely to be beyond their purview.

Believe it or not, Roy Williams said it best in that this is not a basketball problem (or a football problem, or an athletics problem), it is a University problem. Dan Kane can say questions still linger because it drives web hits and sells papers, but UNC is investigating, and the BOG is watching. As an alumnus, I welcome the scrutiny, no matter where it leads.

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