My friend Kate alerted me to the notable New York Times story on academic fraud at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). Phantom courses have been created to provide students with A grades, in some cases, for the benefit of athletes. This story fits the larger pattern of fraudulent practices across the education sector, which is the subject of Chapter 1 of Numbersense (link).
The story about law school admissions in Chapter 1 has many parallels with this story. Falsifying grades to make them look better is a common theme. Law schools do it for their US News ranking; universities with big-time sports programs do it for their NCAA eligibility and on-the-field competitiveness. For those who don't follow US college sports, it is helpful to know that the NCAA (governing body) sets minimum average GPA for "scholar"-athletes (see this story for example). In addition, the NCAA created the "Academic Progress Rate" (Wikipedia) which tracks graduation rates and uses this metric to control the number of scholarships that can be given to athletes. Scholarships is a crucial tool for recruiting the best athletes from high schools. In other words, the NCAA practices a form of performance-based management.
Another parallel with the law schools story is that the college administrators do not see the problem of fraud as cultural or ethical, instead turning to their PR staff for damage control. It is laughable to think that the entire fraud is known only to two already-retired employees, as the reporter writes with amusement, just as it was laughable to think that the head of admissions single-handedly faked all kinds of admissions statistics at those law schools.
Those who read Chapter 1 (and 2) of Numbersense (link) know that all metrics have subjective components and that one should never manage by metrics alone. Once rules are set to compute a metric, the metric will be immediately gamed, and the gap between the measured and real outcomes will continue to grow. The mistake isn't in using metrics but in treating them as truth, and not being vigilant about gaming. If severe punishment were to meet the cheaters, one would suspect the amount of cheating would be reduced.
One of the great laments in the education sector in the last several decades is the adoption of the "corporation" model by many great universities in the U.S., and at the schools level, through the ill-conceived No Child Left Behind legislation. This means rule by quantitative metrics, "performance"-based management, the acceptance of systemic inequity, plausible deniability by the executive class, treating education as an "investment" and students as "customers", etc.
A fundamental problem with this policy is the difficulty of measuring "performance" in education. When you have a half-accurate metric, and you treat it as truth, you are in a world of trouble.
Let's talk about accountability and punishment. In each of these cheating scandals, administrators and/or professors were at fault for manipulating grades and other statistics. Eventually, one or two "bad apples" were identified and dismissed while the "executives" expressed shock at being duped by previously loyal staff members. According to the NYT reporter, for example, the school believes that the administrators and other professors in the same department were not aware that their department offers courses that do not meet even once.
Even if I grant them their naivete, there is a deafening silence in the official story. What about the students? What about the beneficiaries of this fraud? Here, the plausible deniability vanishes. It is simply impossible that the students were duped. If you signed up for a course, and you couldn't figure out where or when the class meets, do you just go through a whole semester and not ask a question? When at the end of the term, you are given an A in the course for which you did not do any work, does no student ever ask a question?
What I really want to know is what UNC will do about those fraudulent grades. In my opinion, all these grades should be invalidated, and graduates who benefited from such courses should be given a choice: forfeit their degrees or earn those credits properly. As my friend pointed out to me, this course of action is lenient--because there is nothing punitive about it.
This is a moment in which we can tell if UNC is a business or an educational institution. If it is a business first, it will crater to its customers (and investors). If it is an institution that cares about academic integrity, it must act bravely.
The record on such matters unfortunately is dismal, as Kate reminded me. The students who copied final exams at Harvard last year were "forced to withdraw" for a year (not sure whether this will be noted on the transcripts). In spite of the investigation, many students and alumni remain convinced that the students were not wrong to copy their exams.
I also found this interesting article on how the withdrawal of athletes associated with the cheating scandal affected Harvard's APR (link). The administrators were talking openly about how this student leaving and so on affects the APR. The APR is probably the most gamed statistic yet to make the news.