Black Panther professor, teacher intimidation at the heart of graduation-rate scandal
No passing grade? At Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), that’s no problem.
According to documents exclusively obtained by Campus Reform, students unable to successfully pass a class often have options other than taking a failing mark. And these options bode well for WSSU as higher graduation rates bring more grant money.
“You can’t imagine what goes on at that campus unless you’re actually there.” - Shira Hedgepeth, former WSSU academic technology director
In fact, the majority of students enrolled in a constitutional law class in the fall of 2012 were saved by a last minute rescue mission in the form of an independent studies class—less than two weeks prior to the semester’s end.
The independent studies course—which lacked a meeting time and place in its course description—was created on Nov. 20, 2012, screenshots of the online version of the course description obtained by Campus Reform show. The course was later backdated to have a start date of Aug. 20, 2012.
The day before the creation of the class, Donald Mac-Thompson, chair of the Social Sciences Department, summoned the constitutional law students to his office.
“Dr. [Carolynn] Berry [associate provost] and I have communicated. I need to speak with all of you. You may come as you wish either in groups or individually [sic]. The sooner you come the better,” the email states.
On Nov. 20, the constitutional law class went from a class of 16 students to a class of three.
While the mass exodus of students at the end of the semester caused some concern for Olethia Davis, professor of the course, WSSU’s provost saw no harm.
“It is a common practice in higher education to work with students to keep them from losing an entire semester of work when there is a situation affecting a specific class that is beyond their control,” Provost Brenda Allen said in a statement to Campus Reform. “Students in such unavoidable circumstances complete their requirements under a qualified individual and are not excused from completing the class unless they opt to withdraw from the class.”
The university was unable to provide explanation on what “unavoidable circumstances” would be relevant in this particular case.
Professorship vs. Political Activism
The “qualified individual” placed in charge of this independent studies program, Larry Little, isn’t without his own scandals at the university.
Little, an activist in the Forsyth County, N.C., community—both for the Democratic Party and the Winston-Salem Black Panthers—provides students with extra credit should they work on campaigns. He recently came under scrutiny for purportedly violating guidelines set by the University of North Carolina (UNC) system—of which WSSU is a member—in regards to political activity. These guidelines explicitly state that university employees are forbidden from engaging in political activity when on work time.
Last September, Little invited Democratic councilman Derwin Montgomery, who was running for reelection, to speak to his class. Little then offered his students the opportunity to leave class early in order to vote. Several students accepted rides from Montgomery’s campaign to cast their ballots. While Little wasn’t working for Montgomery’s campaign this go around, he served as Montgomery’s campaign manager during his first run for office in 2009.
“This particular individual has a lot of capital in town,” a professor familiar WSSU’s Social Sciences Department told Campus Reform anonymously for fear of retribution by the university. “This is not the first time that this individual has been accused of doing that.”
The university acknowledged the incident and launched an investigation. However, it is unclear what—if any—consequences Little received; WSSU told Campus Reform the matter is a “confidential personnel issue that was reviewed and responded to using University sanctioned policies and procedures.”
“The people that the chancellor decided to select to investigate this—none of them are faculty,” the professor went on to say. “If you’re looking at the behavior of an individual who happens to be a professor, you should have his peers looking at him, deciding on the case of academic freedom. To me that’s a travesty. It’s just like saying ‘don’t worry about it, we took care of it.’”
Little did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Campus Reform.
Setting a New Standard
Despite the air of confidentiality surrounding Little’s alleged transgressions, Davis, the professor who taught the constitutional law course, isn’t allotted the same privacy.
Davis, who was also the coordinator of political science in the school’s Social Sciences Department, was suspended from teaching last May with warnings that she could also soon be fired. The school has charged her with “misrepresentation and falsification of credentials” as she listed her 1991 doctoral dissertation for Louisiana State University as a “book.”
Davis’ dissertation can be found in Louisiana State’s library, listed as both a “microfilm” and as a “book.”
Davis did not wish to speak to Campus Reform regarding her situation, but several other professors came forward anonymously, citing what they feared to be a reprisal against Davis.
The professors said this wasn’t the only time a course had been created midway through a semester. According to the educators, grade changing is a prevalent practice throughout the entire university.
“Students apparently are required to take courses in their major and if for ‘X’ reasons they are not able to successfully complete the course, the provost has created a new course, which I find very strange,” one professor told Campus Reform. “Sometimes students who were failing in one course all of a sudden get all A’s. Something must be rather wrong when you see something like that. It violates the integrity of the course.”
Professors have grown accustomed to watching students they assigned failing marks receive diplomas days later.
“In the 2007-08 school year, numerous amounts of grade changes were made,” Shira Hedgepeth, formerly the academic technology director at WSSU, told Campus Reform.
She said when instances of grade changes have been reported to the university, they are investigated by the provost. But according to her, the provost is in charge of the grade changes from the very start.
“You can’t imagine what goes on at that campus unless you’re actually there,” Hedgepeth said.
The provost’s office refused to comment on the grade changing allegations. Nancy Young, director of public and media relations at WSSU, told Campus Reform the provost is “limited in what she can say because of student confidentiality,” adding if any questions were “about grade changing, there is nothing else she can say.”
Besides changing the grades, professors at the university allege that entire course descriptions and requirements can be altered in order to benefit the majority of students.
“What is troublesome is what class is substituting for the class that was required for their majors,” said one professor. “It’s setting a new standard for students unable to pass the required class.”
Trading graduation rates for grants
Over the past few years, WSSU has seen an increase in graduation and retention rates. Such improvements resulted in a monetary reward in March 2013 from the UNC system. WSSU was one of only two schools out of the 17 in the UNC system to receive the $200,000 grant for meeting graduation and retention rate goals.
According to Young, the retention goal set by the UNC system was 68.2 percent for the freshmen class of 2011. WSSU had an actual retention rate of 78.3 percent.
She also said the UNC system set their six-year graduation rate goal at 36.9 percent for students who entered WSSU in 2005 and graduated in 2011. The actual graduation rate was 41 percent.
In 2006, WSSU had a 14.8 graduation rate for students in four years, but Young says the school likes to look at six-year graduation rates, citing financial aid issues as to why it is a better measurement than a four-year rate.
“[M]ost people look at six years anyways,” she told Campus Reform.
Young said WSSU “raised admission standards” in 2007, which had a significant impact on both graduation and retention rates.
“We’ve also gone through curriculum reform,” she told Campus Reform. “We’re preparing students to be more competent in the 21st century workplace by equipping them with skills employers are looking for.”
Bill Holmes, director of external affairs for the N.C. Office of the State Auditor, told Campus Reform the state has not reviewed the grant WSSU received in March as it was not “material enough” for the school. Grants are audited based on the amount of money received compared with the financial state of the university and how much financial assistance the school already draws from the state.
The WSSU grant based on graduation and retention rates “was not considered material because of all the state money they already receive,” Holmes said. “We wouldn’t have audited it.”
However, Holmes did say the state auditor was “certainly interested” in this particular case.
Campus Reform has chosen not to publish the records obtained due to concerns that doing so may violate the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.
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