Thursday, October 23, 2014

On The UNC Academic Fraud Thingy

Via this post at Daily Nous, we learn that
Philosophy professor Jan Boxill was named as an active participant in an academic fraud scheme in a 136-page report issued earlier today [that is, yesterday or the day before] by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill entitled “Investigation of Irregular Classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.” The report details the existence of a number of phony “paper classes.” According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, these “masqueraded as lecture courses but never met, and required only that one paper be submitted.” The paper was assigned not by a professor, but by the department manager, who then “graded the papers, generally giving students A’s or B’s as long as the papers met the assigned length. Many of the papers were plagiarized but still received high grades.” The system was in place for over 15 years.
DN has some juicy excerpts from the report:
In addition to Reynolds’ grade guidance, our email review disclosed several instances where Boxill made specific grade suggestions for her women’s basketball players. ... As to that particular student’s paper, Crowder then said “Did you say a D will do for [the basketball player]? I’m only asking 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 [another class] in spring of 2007 and that was likely for that class.” Boxill replied “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 out from where.” (p.40)
The third tutor who admitted stepping across that line to some extent was women’s basketball academic counselor Jan Boxill. In our review of Boxill’s emails, we discovered a number of instances where Boxill helped her players by drafting small amounts of original text for their papers. On one occasion, for example, she reviewed a player’s draft paper and emailed it back to the player saying that she had “made a few changes” to the paper. On another occasion, Boxill emailed a player a revised paper and explained that she had “add[ed] some stuff for the intro and conclusion.” She later sent that same player a revised paper for a different class, noting that she “added a brief conclusion which follows nicely from what you have.” (pp.56-7)
The DN comment thread is pretty interesting, too. Some comments were pretty critical of Boxill, but there was also some dissent:
This is way more complicated than you are making it out to be. Many of these athletes were recruited, in effect, to work for the university (play sports publicly so that the university could make money) and with the promise that this path – the path of the athlete – was the key to their future. Their lives are parallel to the normal students’ lives and their responsibilities as students should not be uncritically understood along the same lines as the responsibilities of the more typical student. It is not surprising that these athletes do not take their education seriously. And, there are some grounds for viewing these athletes’ “compensation” of a credential from the university as something they had earned *simply by playing sports for the university* [emphasis added]. So, it is not surprising that some academics viewed the athletes’ educational requirements as somewhat less demanding than the normal requirements borne by the typical student.
Now, I don't want to overplay my disagreement with this, because there's a lot in this comment that I agree with. I think it's abundantly clear that the NCAA is a corrupting influence. There's a lot of money there, and the incentives it provides are all wrong. And I think it's also abundantly clear that the student-athletes are often exploited. They are set up to fail--their responsibilities to the athletic department often don't leave them with the time they'd need to to be academically successful, and so they aren't able to take advantage of the educational opportunities that are allegedly their main/only form of compensation. But then the school has an incentive to maintain the athletes's eligibility anyway, and we're off to the races. It's a serious problem, and in all seriousness it's likely that it's at least somewhat of a problem at your school. If your school takes any form of athletic competition seriously in any way, there is very likely to be some kind of shenanigans relating to recruiting the athletes and preserving their eligibility.

But you cannot solve this problem by doing the student-athletes' homework for them. You cannot solve this problem by helping the student-athletes to cheat on their tests. And you cannot solve the problem by creating fake, no-show classes with no material, no instruction, no requirements, and no faculty involvement. If you're doing that, you're part of the problem. When you give the student-athletes fake classes they didn't take and then fake grades they didn't earn and then fake degrees they don't deserve, that is the corruption. That's what it is.

Now look. I work at a school like that. Athletics are extremely, remarkably, incredibly important here, and I see the corruption, and I don't know what to do about it. I don't know what the right thing to do is. And it's not at all clear that washing your hands of it, and thereby turning your back on students who are being exploited and need help, is the right answer. But a school that makes a policy of awarding academic degrees to student-athletes based on work performed on the basketball field rather than in the classroom has sold its academic integrity, and its plain-old integrity, for sports and money.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I honestly stopped caring a while ago.

Let's face it, there's no incentive for them to change, so why should they? The athletes don't care. The NCAA doesn't care. The fans don't care. The universities don't care.

Close your eyes and pretend it's not happening. Or accept that it's true and there's nothing you can do about it. And that it is irrelevant to the work you do. If the athletes are taking fake classes, let them. At least they aren't wasting a seat in a real class.

zombie said...

So, I've had student athletes fail my classes. I've had students tell me they need a certain grade to maintain their eligibility, and they don't get that grade. I don't "give" students grades that they don't earn through their classwork.

But I've never been pressured by the school to do that, and my school takes one sport in particular extremely seriously. I don't know what I would do if, being TT and vulnerable, I was pressured to do something like that. And I don't know why Jan Boxill did it, if the allegations are true.

I agree with you about the exploitation of student athletes. Actually, Sports Illustrated has a cover story on homeless students athletes. The exploitation goes beyond just giving them a phony degree.

Anonymous said...

At my university, sports are a big deal, and given that every student must take and successfully complete two philosophy courses to graduate (I teach at at Catholic school), I've had a larger number of NCAA Division I athletes in my classes. For the most part, my student athletes do fairly well. Some have earned F's, others have earned A's, but the majority of them are just average. This may have to do with the particular culture of the university I teach at, I don't know.

However, there are two cases with students athletes that I still think about to this day. The first earned a D in the class, but only because she turned all of her work in and attended regularly. Her work, though, was abysmal. It wasn't merely that her papers and exams weren't philosophically accurate. Her writing--unreadable across the board. The student couldn't for the life of her construct a complete sentence. As I have access to student transcripts, I was curious to see how she did in her other classes the semester she took mine. She earned D's and C's in all of her classes, except for one. The one outlier was College Composition. She "earned" an A- in that class. I was blown away to learn that, and I can't under any possible circumstance understand it.

The second had to do with a student who needed to pass philosophy or be academically disqualified. He had taken the class twice before taking mine. I failed him. He's no longer at the university. I'm fine with that.

Anonymous said...

what happens on the basketball field stays on the basketball field

Anonymous said...

"The first earned a D in the class, but only because she turned all of her work in and attended regularly. Her work, though, was abysmal."

Thanks for contributing to the culture of academic fraud for student athletes. ;)

Anonymous said...

Is there any mention of the kind of professors who faced that pressure? Were they all adjunct and TT?

I mean, I like to think that even if I was TT I'd tell the pressuring faculty to go fuck themselves (in exactly those words), but even I would balk a little at doing that as an adjunct...

Anonymous said...

wow... this kind of 'helping' of athletes actually hurts them. They deserve a real education, just like other students. Pushing them through is an injustice (for them).

But, without defending the particulars of the Boxill case, it's worth adding that it can be VERY easy to cross a line between helping a student write an essay and writing that essay for them. If what Boxill is alleged to have done is accurate, she *easily* crossed that line and should've known she was crossing it. But this is a reminder to all of us about how important it is to never insert lines for a student -- this is one reason I won't read students' drafts in advance and restrict helping them to oral discussions.

Anonymous said...

"this kind of 'helping' of athletes actually hurts them. They deserve a real education, just like other students. Pushing them through is an injustice (for them)."

It depends on what the comparison class is. If the choice is between helping someone pass one of their last classes and graduating or letting them fail and not graduating, then a "real education" does not factor into the decision. When someone is in his or her final year of a scholarship, sometimes it's too late for a real education and it's better to at least give them the line on their resume than to fail them.

That's what I take the thought process to be. It's analogous to the Atlantic article from last year in which the author preferred a society with no guns to one with guns, but thought that America was so deep into its gun culture that it would be better to expand concealed carry laws.

Matthew Smith said...

Mr. Zero -

In my comments on DN I did not argue that Boxill could _solve the problem_ by doing the students homework for them.

Rather, the question is what good people should do when confronting a system of exploitation that is way bigger than they are. Most of us - you, me, etc. - just rail against this system on blogs and in conversations. Boxill faced these athletes every day and knew them very well. Her inaction would ensure that these exploited athletes would fail college.

She chose another route. This was a morally objectionable route. But, let us be clear about what she was doing: She was not trying to solve the problem of the exploitation of athletes. She was trying to mitigate the negative effects of that exploitation.

Mercy in the context of justice can seem like injustice because, after all, it leavens the penalties and weakens the rewards people deserve in virtue of justice. Perhaps, Boxill's actions here were cases of ill-considered mercy. Although, I encourage everyone here to imagine facing a desperate college athlete with no future in professional sports who says, tears in her eyes, "If I fail this class, then the past four years were for nothing? Can't you help me?" And then the coach calls up. And the athletic director. And maybe even the parents. All of them saying, "You've got to fix this - help her - make sure she passes."

When I vividly imagine myself regularly in this situation, as Boxill was regularly in this situation, it's no longer so easy for me to see the mercy Boxill offered as so easily condemnable, even if it was, ultimately, mistaken.

Anonymous said...

Matthew Smith,

What direct insight into Boxill's intentions do you have that everyone else who has read all the publicly available information lacks?

From what I've read (including the report), Boxill's intentions may well have been purely selfish: anywhere from not wanting to jeopardize her career by rocking the boat, to quid pro quo.

I have no specific evidence that they were, in fact, purely selfish. But neither do you have any specific evidence that her intentions were more noble or excusable.

So it seems to me that we should all refrain from making judgments about this case based on unfounded musings about "what Boxill was trying to do", as you do here.

zombie said...

Boxill is a senior lecturer at UNCCH, which presumably means she is not protected by tenure. She is also a former director of the center for ethics there. What makes her alleged misconduct really surprising is that she is an eminent scholar on sports ethics.

It's been made pretty clear that heads will roll -- UNC has said that several faculty will be fired. Was Boxill pressured to help students pass phony classes? I don't know. But it's possible. And it's possible the problem was so widespread at UNC that helping individual athletes get a phony degree was the only workable solution, given time constraints on both faculty and students.

I guess my point is that the problem and its solution lies with the university, and not the actions of individual faculty. I see student athletes all the time who really struggle. They miss classes for away games, and they have practice that takes away time for study. They get injured and miss even more. They are athletes first, students second, and they work for the university, and their "pay" is a degree, but not an education. That system sucks and it exploits student athletes. Can any single professor change it by refusing to pass students who can't earn a passing grade? Nope. Students just won't take that person's classes anymore, and the university will find faculty who CAN be pressured to pass athletes. Which won't be hard.

According to info widely available online, Boxill made about $85K/year, which is pretty damn decent for a philosophy lecturer. But the football coach at UNC Chapel Hill makes $1.7 million per year. The men's basketball coach makes close to $2mil. Who do you think has more power and influence on campus? This is not about one or several professors engaging in misconduct. This is about a university that rewards athletic success and does not care about the academic success of its student athletes.

Anonymous said...

Matthew Smith's 10:31 comments were very helpful to me in understanding the situation. I too found Boxill's behavior baffling but vividly imagining her daily situation does make it much more intelligible.

I'm not saying it wasn't the wrong thing to do. But I daresay, I might have done the same thing in her situation.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon 1:58:

I got my PhD from UNC. I know Jan, worked closely with her and count her (still) as a good friend. And I second Matthew Smith's characterization of Jan's likely intentions and the situations she faced. I personally dealt with several student athletes, including many women's basketball players who had Jan as an adviser during the time period in question. Several of them faced unbelievably difficult circumstances, from sexual assaults and unwanted pregnancies, to your garden variety terrible home lives and systematic under preparedness for college courses.

Knowing Jan and a good bit about her personal and professional situation, her actions make *no sense* on the supposition that she was acting out of selfishness. To risk her livelihood and reputation so a few women's basketball players could remain eligible and graduate? That's foolish, not selfish.

Anonymous said...

We haven't had a DTR in a while. What is the aim of this blog? I feel like it no longer fills a need and is just a less-trafficked version of other blogs, e.g. DN, PMB, NA. It needs a niche again, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

One of the things I'm not seeing much discussion of is the fact that student-athletes made up about 48% of the students in these fake classes. I understand the athlete angle on this, but not the other students. It seems that Crowdill started the classes to "help" underprepared students who struggled otherwise, but it's hard to see how anyone could honestly think that that's a real help, as opposed to offering prep courses or something.

What I imagine is that there are plenty of kids just not getting a decent enough HS education, and that combined with financial challenges etc make the hurdle of college preparedness pretty daunting.