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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Embracing plurality and difference in higher education – necessary but not sufficient

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By Rob Cuthbert – Editor, SRHE News

The SRHE Annual Research Conference in December 2014 invites us to reflect on Inspiring future generations: embracing plurality and difference in higher education: ‘Within the HE research community we have the capacity, the history, the knowledge and the expertise to inform and shape the transformation of the higher education sector globally into an innovative, multi-faceted system; one with new and different sources of funding, with diverse modes of participation and one more responsive to the changing needs and expectations of people, institutions and societies.’ Quite right: inspiration is a benefit we expect of Conference every year. We have it in ourselves to be the best, but there are always temptations to be otherwise, with the lure of funds and reputation sometimes suggesting unethical short cuts. SRHE Vice-President Roger Brown, who in his latest book bemoaned the kind of marketisation where it appears that everything is for sale, has recently warned that ‘The pursuit of status will be the death of the university as we know it.’

Reports of ethical lapses are usually tales of individual transgression and recent European research on unethical behaviour suggests that too many academics admit to some of the behaviours of which they disapprove. But even this pales by comparison to an academic scandal at one of the US’s leading universities, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The most charitable interpretation we can put on a 20-year period of wrongdoing is misguided concern for students, misplaced loyalty to the university, concern to protect fundraising from alumni who often reward the university’s sporting successes, and too many academics and senior managers willing to look the other way, or in some cases colluding with unethical behaviour. The tolerance of differences between academic departments – departmental autonomy and plurality in the university’s academic governance – might have been a necessary condition for excellence, but  countervailing systems for academic accountability proved woefully inadequate.

A 136-page report tells how more than 3000 students, including many athletes in the University basketball team, were able to take ‘courses’ which were in essence entirely faked. For 15 years Debby Crowder, Student Services Manager in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, although not a faculty member, set up ‘courses’ for which attendance was unnecessary and for which only one paper was required. Crowder was widely known as someone who would go out of her way to support students; she was also a passionate supporter of the UNC basketball team. The report says: ‘Crowder provided no actual instruction, but she managed the course from beginning to end. She registered the students for their classes; she assigned them their paper topics; she received their completed papers at the end of the semester; she graded the papers; and she recorded the students’ final class grades on the grade rolls’. Many papers were plagiarized but Crowder routinely awarded As or Bs to maintain the athletes’ GPA scores.

When Crowder retired in 2009 there was near panic in the athletics department, which the report shows to be widely aware of and implicated in the scandal. The chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, Julius Nyang’oro, ostensibly the academic supervisor of many of the students involved, continued the fake classes after Crowder’s retirement under pressure from the athletics department. But this was more than a failure by one or two departments: there was a catastrophic failure in quality assurance. When routine checks showed Nyang’oro to have an impossible 300-student load, he was simply asked by the university to reduce the load in future; no-one investigated further. Other academics knew, did not challenge, or colluded in what was going on. Jan M Boxill, a philosophy professor and an academic counselor to women’s basketball players, sent students to Crowder and often suggested the grades they should receive. Boxill was a prominent member of the university – chair of the UNC faculty for three years and director of the Parr Center for Ethics, whose mission statement says: ‘The Parr Center serves as a hub for ethical discussion … we bring together experts from a variety of professions and reach across campus and beyond to make our community and world more ethically conscious.’ In 2013, while Director of the Parr Center and Chair of the UNC Faculty, Dr Jan Boxill gave a series of lectures on ‘Sports as a Public Forum for Ethics’, and in 2015 the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport named her as the 2015 Warren Fraleigh Distinguished Scholar. Across the university there were some too ready to ‘embrace plurality and difference’, and some who just looked the other way.

The report says that senior administrators at UNC co-operated fully with the inquiry, which followed earlier investigations with a narrower focus, and to the extent there were any delays they were probably attributable to administrators’ ‘disbelief’ that such things could occur on such a scale. But they did, in a long-term institutional systemic failure of academic accountability and quality assurance. The sorry saga reminds us that while embracing plurality and difference in higher education is a necessary condition of academic excellence, inspiring future generations also needs a sufficient measure of the more prosaic virtues of compliance and accountability.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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