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Academic Scandal at Winston-Salem State

Administrators at the university sacrifice academic integrity to make the school’s results look better.

By Shira Hedgepeth

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July 17, 2013

I worked at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) for more than four years, rising to the post of director of academic technology in the school’s Information Technology Department. My first position at the school was that of instructional designer in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, which had been formed to address growing concern over student failure rates.   

My job was to assist faculty in the implementation of technology into their pedagogy to provide a better learning experience for the students.    

Although all instructors were granted the opportunity to attend training and receive assistance, courses with high drop, fail, and withdrawal (DFW) rates were specifically targeted. Most schools track this information. Trends in this data provide the administration the opportunity improve course outcomes and increase instructor and student successes.   

Although there can be many reasons why some courses have high DFW rates, it usually comes down to the difficulty of the course, the instructor’s ability to teach the material, or the students’ ability to learn the material presented. High DFW rates are most often seen in math, science, and health science based courses.     

During my first year at WSSU (which is one of five historically black colleges and universities in the UNC system), several troubling issues became apparent. 

Many of the entering students were not prepared for college and required remediation before they were able to take regular college courses. Thus, many of these students were unable to make it through to graduation and that put pressure on the university and faculty to increase success rates. The university’s four-year graduation rate for the university was a mere 14 percent.  Since funding from the state is based on graduation rates and a school’s accreditation can be jeopardized by low rates, campus officials were extremely concerned. 

Because of WSSU’s low graduation rate, school officials had to decide whether to change its admission standards and move to attract a higher quality of student, or to lower course standards to make it appear that students were more successful. During faculty and staff meetings, this was discussed and the chancellor stated that he did not want to change the “look” of WSSU. Raising admission standards would mean fewer students on campus and therefore less state money flowing in.

The path the administration took was to make it seem as though students were doing better. Of course, there was no official statement to that effect, but I realized that was the case after faculty members began to share their concerns and frustration with me.   

Many stated that they were under pressure to decrease the material in the courses and increase the passing rates. They feared that they would be released if they didn’t. Other faculty members expressed concern that students were held to different standards depending on their race. Some said that they thought school officials were changing grades they had entered.

Although those complaints were disturbing, I had no proof and I had to operate as if they were only rumors.  

My suspicions are heightened by the cheating I witnesses on numerous occasions. Faculty members were encouraged to utilize the “learning management system” for testing.  Under that system, students would come to the library in groups and check out laptops to take tests. 

This process would start early on the day that the test was due and the students would be there for hours.   They would cluster in a corner and one student would start taking the test, while the others would have open books, laptops, and notes readily available to assist the student.  Each would take their turn taking the test until all of the students had finished. Unfortunately, WSSU provided no way to track or report student cheating.

I witnessed this blatant cheating on several occasions and reported it to my supervisor and the associate provost. They told me that it was none of my business. That didn’t surprise me, since I had made complaints previously about academic dishonesty and had been told that I was not my concern. Apparently, the administration was more interested in students getting good grades than whether they earned those grades honestly.

Before I could learn more about the erosion of academic integrity at WSSU, I was fired. In 2011, after I had been promoted to director of academic technology, one of workers in the department, unhappy that a white person had been chosen, repeatedly attacked me verbally. After mediation with her failed to bring results, and because of other complaints about her performance, I recommended that she be released. I was stunned when, shortly thereafter, I was notified that I had been terminated.

Believing that I had been fired without cause and because of my race, I contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that responds to cases of workplace discrimination. After investigating, the Director of the Greensboro office found that the university’s stated justification for my firing was unconvincing and there was reason to believe that racial discrimination had been a factor. (The EEOC has referred my case to the Department of Justice, where it is still pending.)

Subsequently, the Winston-Salem Journal published an article about my case. That article provided an avenue for faculty and staff to contact me regarding their concerns and complaints regarding WSSU.   

One faculty member who contacted me stated that not only did she have knowledge of the administration’s practice of raising student grades, but she could prove it because she’d been able to leave the university with her records intact. At first I was skeptical, knowing what I did about the university’s exit practice. The person to be fired would be called into a meeting while his computer, records, and belongings were confiscated by WSSU employees. 

That is what occurred with my discharge. I had been in a meeting with a faculty member when I and was interrupted and told to go to a meeting with my supervisor, Justin McKenzie. While he was informing me that my services were no longer needed, school representatives were in my office removing everything including my computer and personal belongings. I was not allowed to retrieve any files or records whether they were personal or not.

Over the holiday break in 2012, however, I met with a faculty member who had the records to back her story. 

She stated that before leaving WSSU, a student came to her office and thanked her for “giving” her an “A” when she knew that she had barely earned a “B” in a nursing course. The professor was stunned to hear that and decided to go back into the student record keeping system to see if she had made a mistake.

Looking at the records, she saw that four of her grades had been changed from B to A, and one from an F to an Incomplete. In each instance, the student who benefited was black. Also, white students who had higher averages than those whose grades were raised all remained at the lower, correct, grades. She documented all of the changes on her records. 

When this professor complained to the administration about the grade changes, officials took no action except to create such a hostile work environment for her that she quit. Because she quit, however, she avoided the usual confiscation routine and was therefore able to escape with her records. I am confident that her records are only the tip of the iceberg and other faculty members are still reaching out to me with additional evidence about grade increases.

I have written to both UNC president Tom Ross and Governor Pat McCrory to inform them about the bad conditions at WSSU. So far, neither has responded. Both should take a serious interest in this matter. Taxpayer money is being wasted at a university where the appearance of educational progress means more than actual educational progress.

 

 


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