Monday, December 26, 2016

Fake Classes

The "shadow curriculum" uncovered in UNC-Chapel Hill's African and African American (AFAM) Studies department that had festered for about 23 years until Summer 2011 was a scandal. No debate about it. I don't think there's anyone who insists it wasn't scandalous.

Where people begin to part ways is over where culpability for the scandal lies, what the motives were, just how bad the scandal was and whether or not enough has been done about it put it all in the past and Move Forward.

For those who believe the scandal has been exaggerated and "sensationalized" by the news media, little is more vexing than the word choices for the scandalous classes. Similarly, critics of UNC have noted how UNC has steadfastly avoided certain words or phrases to describe the scandal to downplay and segregate contextual issues, depending on its audience. The word play debate has become a contest of so-called "narratives" in how the story is told.

The Wainstein Report never calls the classes "fraudulent or "fake." Instead, the Report (even in its title) calls these classes "irregular" and to a lesser extent, carries over the word choice of "anomalous" from the 2012 Martin Report. The University, itself, in official responses to its accrediting agency, SACSCOC, consistently avoids labeling the classes as "fraudulent," and sticks with the convention of Martin and Wainstein in calling the classes "irregular" and "anomalous."

Even on this blog, I've dogmatically used the institution's preferred phraseology, avoiding the use of "fake, "scam" or "phony," even though, editorially speaking, I don't disagree with the application of those adjectives.

The one exception was in UNC's first post-Wainstein response to SACS, in January 2015.

Though Wainstein's report didn't explicitly characterize the curricular abnormalities as "academic fraud," SACS did when it reopened its inquiry of UNC's curriculum in November 2014 on the basis of the Wainstein investigation findings, addressing the issue as one of "fraud."

In it's response to SACS, UNC presented a chastened tone:

UNC legalists probably wish that letter could be re-articulated, because in all subsequent reports and responses to SACS, NCAA and in every other official public release, UNC has not referred to the issue as one of "fraud;" instead  it has carefully adhered to the Martin and Wainstein language of "irregularities" and "anomalous courses."

The University's  longstanding ameliorating arguments to the "fraudulent" nature of the classes has been that though the courses were deficient, there is no evidence that credit was ever awarded for classes:
  1. that hadn't been approved by the University and accredited; or,
  2. in which students didn't "do the work." 
As this argument goes, the classes weren't, therefore, "fraudulent," but rather just "easy" and not up to the standards of UNC-Chapel Hill. Some UNC apologists also note that the classes, though "irregular" and sub-standard, have never been discredited; ergo, they remain legitimate regardless of how bereft of academic merit they might have been.

The onus of discrediting the classes rests solely with the University, itself. The authority of SACS is on accreditation going forward, and not on credits already granted. Even before Wainstein, SACS president Belle Wheelan appealed to UNC to "make whole" the degrees of those students whose transcripts might have been impacted by the scandal. That was the best SACS could do with respect to credits already rewarded. But it is University policy is that transcripts are "sealed" after one year and cannot be changed. Thus, no credit for past courses, whether "irregular," "fraudulent," or "bogus," can be altered. I can't speak to how binding University policy truly is, but there has been no incentive for UNC to break with policy, given what that would signify if it were to concede illegitimacy of prior approved academic credit.

We keep hearing complaints about media "narrative," but everyone has a "narrative." The University, itself, by standing by its policy on sealed transcripts as inviolate and avoiding reference to the scandalous classes" as "fraudulent" is engaged in a "narrative." Proponents defending the University champion a "narrative" when they claim the classes were legitimate, albeit overly easy, and that the same sort of thing happens in university curricula everywhere.

"Fake" and "bogus" don't solely connote "non-existent." like the Loch Ness monster. The words also mean "insincere," "counterfeit," "inauthentic;" or basically "not what they said they were."

No one refers to a "fake" Rolex watch as one that doesn't exist. The watch is real watch. It's just not a real Rolex watch. Someone "did the work" and built the watch. Rolex could try to prosecute the manufacturer or distributor to put a stop to the counterfeiting, yet also tell customers who bought such a counterfeit that it can't refund the buyer's money. But I can't imagine Rolex ever saying because the watch exists and works (or at least did work for awhile) it's not fake.

A class cataloged and described to be a lecture class but which, in actuality, was offered as an independent study is disingenuous. If, on an exception basis, the practice was sanctioned on occasion, documented and approved, it wouldn't be inauthentic. It might be "irregular," but it would have had explicit approval to be "sold" as such. But the machinations of the so-called "shadow curriculum" were done to keep it under the radar, in a "nudge-nudge-wink-wink, say no more" kind of way. Legitimacy is not preserved just because students turned something in at the end or just because the University won't discredit the classes.

And even if it was never listed as a lecture class, but was in the course catalog as an Independent Study, if it was administered with the sort of "irregularities" described by UNC's own investigations, no amount of weasel wording can salvage those classes as being merely "easy" and simply below University standards, rather than not truly on the up-and-up. A perfunctory "work" submission doesn't render a class un-fake.

The hand-wringing over pejorative word choice as being inaccurate or sensationalizing reveals a lack of true ownership for what transpired at UNC for at least 23 years. Of course, UNC advocates want to minimize the breadth and extent of the scandal. It's their counter-narrative to the one to which they object. But it's not the truth. It's a gloss.

It's natural to want to limit damage to already-standing edifices. But sometimes to truly correct a problem, you need to tear into the foundations to be confident that the rot, or the conditions that permitted the rot, are fully excised. The University and its proponents keep reminding us of the 80 Reforms that have been enacted and how the University should now be seen as an exemplar moving forward. Yet there is still a dedicated engagement by the University in 'damage control,' fighting petty battles over word games and trying to walk the edge between appearing to be contrite while also battling would-be watchdogs and critical coverage.

The AFAM faculty and even Dr. Nyang'oro himself called it a "shadow curriculum."

The Martin Report called them "anomalies" and "phantom classes"

The Wainstein Report called them "irregularities"

SACS called it "academic fraud," (and UNC, for a brief instant, agreed).

The classes weren't simply "easy."

They weren't "legitimate" just because student "did the work" and the University hasn't removed credits.

The classes were bogus.

The classes were fake.

It's not just a "media narrative" or editorial skewage to call them such. Resisting such characterization is skewing.

Unless, and until, the University and its proponents cease to quibble over words and worry more about mitigating public perception damage, the scandal will never truly resolve no matter how many self-congratulatory reforms are put into place. You can't expect to truly remedy a problem if you don't honestly address and admit what the problem was.

Note: the list of "bogus" classes identified by the Wainstein investigation are found in tables of the accompanying Exhibits file, starting on page 90. It includes irregular Independent Studies, "Paper classes (Lecture classes conducted as Independent Studies), and the Bifurcated classes (hybrids of the first two types).