UNC grads say African and Afro-American classes were rigorous

This story originally appeared in The News & Observer on September 10, 2012.

Sam Pride did not envision graduating with a degree in Afro-American Studies when he first stepped on to UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, but as the history buff from Rocky Mount searched for classes to take, an introductory course within the department quickly put him on the path.

That class, and the subsequent ones he took from the department, broadened his understanding of the world.

“It’s another retelling of history that you really don’t learn,” said Pride, who plans to graduate in December. “It just opened my eyes to a whole new world of history and possibilities.”

The curriculum did more than help him discover a part of American history that many have a hard time accepting, let alone understanding. It inspired him to start a mentoring program in which he and several other UNC-Chapel Hill students visit the C.A. Dillon Youth Development Center in Butner, a state facility for youths who have committed serious crimes, to talk about race, history and opportunities.

Many others who have graduated or taken numerous courses within the African and Afro-American Studies Department tell similar stories of enlightenment and inspiration. That’s why they are so disheartened by the scandal that originated within the small department and now has some calling for its end.

“I worked as an undergrad,” said Christina DeLane, a 2006 graduate now in a Washington, D.C., law school. “I had papers to write, things to read, a lot of studying. It was several books in a class. This was real, and to think it wasn’t real for other people is beyond me. You don’t major in African and Afro-American studies to get by. UNC is a hard school.”

A recent internal investigation of the department found 54 classes with little or no instruction over a four-year period, and dozens more independent studies with little accountability. Nearly two-thirds of the enrollments in the no-show classes were athletes, with football players representing the largest block.

The no-show classes are a small percentage of the 616 classes held in the department during that period. University officials say only two people in the department were involved in the suspect courses: Julius Nyang’oro, the former longtime department chairman who was forced into retirement in July, and Deborah Crowder, the longtime departmental manager who retired in 2009.

More evidence suggests the no-show classes and loosely-monitored independent studies went back years beyond the 2007 to 2011 period reviewed by university officials. But Pride, DeLane and several other nonathletes interviewed by The News & Observer who either graduated with degrees from the department or took a high concentration of courses say they knew nothing about classes that offered little instruction or academic rigor.

“Everyone I talked to was shocked by it,” said Rob Stephens, 26, a staff member for the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, and a 2009 graduate.

The graduates’ comments about the department’s overall rigor raise more questions about who were the intended beneficiaries of the suspect courses. UNC-CH officials have said the academic fraud is not an NCAA matter because nonathletes were in the classes and were treated the same as athletes. So far, the NCAA has agreed, though other investigations into the fraud continue.

None of those interviewed said they had Nyang’oro as a professor, and some of them said they do not recall meeting him during their time on campus. Jason Warner, a 2006 UNC graduate who is now a doctoral student in African and African-American studies at Harvard University, said he defended his senior thesis paper before Nyang’oro and two other professors, and was impressed with the department chairman.

“I really remember him for his intellect and the questions he would pose to me,” Warner said.

He and other graduates say the small department of roughly 25 professors and instructors has top experts in their fields who are also gifted teachers. One of them, Reginald Hildebrand, was one of five professors this year to receive the university’s top undergraduate teaching award. He and other department professors, however, have declined to be interviewed about the department’s strengths and weaknesses.

Extensive classwork

A review of syllabuses shows courses with rich topics and extensive classwork. A syllabus for a 2006 class titled The African American in Cinema required reading several books, watching more than a dozen films, producing two papers and completing two exams.

University officials say the department also plays an important role in the university’s study abroad programs in Africa, and helps students doing volunteer work there in areas such as health care.

But the scandal has caused some people – including a student who published a recent letter in the campus paper – to say the department should be eliminated for being at the heart of the scandal. Others such as Jane Shaw, president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think tank, have questioned the need for a separate department that specializes in African and African-American studies, fueling a debate that has gone on at other universities untouched by scandal.

“While the investigations have implicated no one except the former department administrator and the former department chair, a cloud of suspicion seems to have settled over the entire department, “ said Jan Boxill, the chairwoman of the university’s Faculty Council, in an email to her colleagues Friday morning. “In a few cases, indeed, some have suggested that two individuals’ misdeeds call into question the scholarly rigor and value of the department’s work as a whole. We must firmly reject such suggestions.”

With Chancellor Holden Thorp’s urging, the council on Friday passed with no dissent a resolution backing the African studies’ department and its mission. When Kia Caldwell, a department professor, read a statement asking for the council’s support she received a standing ovation.

The department has a new chairwoman, Eunice Sahle, and numerous reforms have been put in place to try to prevent a similar scandal. One planned change that might bring relief to the department’s graduates who are now worried about the scandal’s impact on their careers is a new name that better reflects the range of the department’s focus. It will soon be called the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies.

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