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Friday, March 06, 2015

Here's a good example of a tenured professor who should be fired

I am a staunch defendant of academic freedom but tenure doesn't protect you from gross misconduct. Here's an example where a Professor of Philosophy at UNC faced dismissal hearings and, wisely, decided to resign. I'm betting that ethics wasn't her specialty.

Why did she resign? Read about it at: Jan Boxill, implicated in UNC scandal, resigns.

Apparently Boxill was counselor to the women’s basketball team and she participated in a scheme to give athletes decent grades in "courses" that didn't exist or required minimal work. Some of the courses were in African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) and some were philosophy courses.
[The Provost's] letter to Boxill said there was "compelling evidence that over a period of several years you knowingly participated in grossly improper practices in your roles as a member of the faculty and an academic advisor to student athletes."

The letter, released Thursday, accused Boxill of several acts of misconduct:

▪ Requesting that AFAM employees provide specific grades to students.

▪ Steering athletes to AFAM courses that she knew were not overseen or taught by faculty, required only a paper and were graded by former office manager Deborah Crowder.

▪ Editing and writing portions of text inserted into the papers of the students she tutored.

▪ Allowing students to enroll in independent study classes in philosophy that required little academic work.
Bye-bye Boxhill.


  1. This isn't the UNC employee who was pressured to resign after she was the original person to *report* this was going on, right?

    Large numbers of people participated in these activities in the athletic and academic departments of UNC, but just coincidentally I'm sure, it doesn't seem to have reached the point that anyone important (coaches, for example, who are likely paid far more than the professors) has had to leave.

  2. I don't know details of this case, but surely the real scandal is that U.S. universities maintain de-facto-professional athletic teams (particularly in U.S. football and basketball) while pretending that it is all done for the education of the athletes. All the 80,000-seat stadiums, all the giant training facilities, all the elaborate television contracts.

    Interestingly enough, in sports such as baseball, which does not concentrate its recruiting on college teams, the college teams do not get prospective professional athletes, and get much less attention.

    When I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, the student newspaper wondered why we had to pay to have a football team who were nominally students. Why not, they said, just hire the Green Bay Packers as "artists in residence"?

    1. surely the real scandal is that U.S. universities maintain de-facto-professional athletic teams (particularly in U.S. football and basketball) while pretending that it is all done for the education of the athletes

      Yes. I'm not even certain they believe they're still fooling anyone by pretending. Perhaps it's like the cigarette company executives years ago, who pretended there was a controversy about whether smoking was harmful for health in order to try to protect themselves from litigation.

  3. Joe is correct. University athletics in America, football and basketball, are huge money machines. University coaches are often paid higher than their equivalents in the pros. Why did Bobby Knight never get a gig in the NBA? Or Bear Bryant in the NFL? Because why would they want to take a pay cut?!

    One possible way around the problem, at least with basketball, is to do what hockey and baseball have done for decades: have a minor league system with farm teams. There are already minor basketball leagues, and there's the NBA Development League, but the systems aren't really integrated with the NBA to the extent that they are in baseball and hockey. David Stern announced in 2005 that the NBA D-League would become a proper minor league farm system, but with only 18 teams at the moment it doesn't cover everyone.

    Dave Bailey

    1. I don't see why universities are tasked with finding "one possible way around the problem". Let the football business figure that out.

      Universities can simply close their football programs and resign from their leagues. Famously, the University of Chicago did those in 1939 and 1946. U of C had been a major power in the Big Ten conference and its coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, was credited with such innovations as the Man In Motion and the lateral pass. (Stagg Field stadium had also been the location of the first nuclear fission reactor, built by Enrico Fermi for the Manhattan Project in 1942). Stagg Field was demolished and is now the site of a library. However the University resumed playing varsity football in 1969: they are now down in NCAA Division III and play mostly small colleges.

      The University of Alabama, Birmingham, announced in 2014 that it would drop varsity football as it was too expensive. It is unclear as to whether this will actually happen as alumni were outraged.

      Though most of their academic faculty are in favor of that, most U.S. universities would be terrified to drop football. The alumni would be outraged and reduce donations, and the state legislatures might retaliate by cutting the university budget, reasoning that the main purpose of the university had disappeared.

    2. That's what always gets said, that success at sports gets the alumni dollars flowing, but I don't get it. I understand that alumni who live near their school may attend games and buy overpriced food and beer in the stadium and thus contribute to the university's budget a bit, but do people really make decisions on *donating* to their school based on sports?

    3. In the case of University of Alabama, sports seems not to have been successful enough to get alumni contributions or state money coming in, at least not enough to compensate for the cost of the sport.

      In our university, the claim is made that the football-and-basketball program pays for itself and the profit pays for other sports too. I think a lot of this is TV contracts. The worry is that without those sports the alumni donations would be markedly less, and support in the state legislature would decline too.

      Of course the state legislature has already reduced its support-per-student by half (!) over the last two decades. They're getting out of the university business, and unless Seattle's high-tech industry takes over from them and generates a lot more donations, disaster is inevitable. U of Washington will become a de-facto private school, much smaller, and catering to children of wealthy people, many of them from other countries.

    4. The notion that big-time college football programs are moneymakers is incorrect. The last time someone wrote a book-length treatment of this, they found only somewhere between 12 and 17 of the ~120 schools with the largest football programs made more money from football than it cost the school to field a team. There is also not a lot of evidence that it increases alumni contributions. (The best way to do that appears to be to have financially successful alumni, so Ivy League and other schools with big academic reputations that help get alumni hired have the largest endowments.)

      I did a back-of-the-envelope analysis a few years ago on what is probably the most successful program, the University of Alabama (main campus in Tuscaloosa), and found they ought to be fairly close to break-even, with the huge capital costs of such things as stadium expansion, athletic dorms, and training facilities, to say nothing of staff salaries (including the head football coach, who by a long way is the highest paid public employee in the state), travel costs (airfare for 120+ players, coaches, staff, and perhaps even 90+ band members), etc.

    5. Colleges with successful football and basketball programs seem to enjoy a bump in admissions following a championship, or so I read recently in a study (can find if necessary). So it's not necessarily just the alumni donations that increase (if that even happens)--it may well be that more paying students enroll because people like to be part of a university with a winning team. The conflict of interest is clear: the coaches need their student athletes eligible to play and the administration doesn't have a strong incentive to police their academic performance so long as their championships keep admissions flowing.

    6. Colleges with successful football and basketball programs seem to enjoy a bump in admissions following a championship

      This seems unlikely since most major colleges already accept the maximum number of students they can accommodate. Perhaps you mean a bump in applications?

    7. My sister and her husband are both academic psychologists. They told me when they were considering which US universities to apply to for work, they would often think of one that initially struck them as an outstanding school. They would then have to consider further and determine whether this was because they knew of the school's academic reputation, of if its name stuck in their heads because it had a successful football or basketball team.

  4. Sounds like UNC bureaucrats found a scapegoat and threw her under the bus. Not that she likely didn't deserve it. In an ideal world, athletic and most humanities departments in most universities are eliminated because they serve no useful function to the society.

  5. The university sports system in the USA is indeed very odd, seen from the outside.

    To lighten things up a bit, this SMBC comic is what I often think of when the meaning of tenure is discussed in terms of "can do what you want without consequences".

    1. That is extremely offensive. I can't imagine how any sane person could think it's funny. If that's how the average student views professors then we professors have a lot of work ahead of us. And so do the students.

    2. It's the nature of humor to be offensive. It almost always involves someone being hurt or inconvenienced. Or behaving in a self defeating way.

      As for whether the average student thinks something, I think that "average" doesn't get much coverage, because the ordinary is ordinary, and not interesting. News is news because it's atypical. So the average person isn't going to read about the typical behavior of teachers. He or she will click on the story involving something unusual.

    3. It's the nature of humor to be offensive. It almost always involves someone being hurt or inconvenienced.

      Not sure I agree, but do you think the cartoon is funny?

    4. Do I think it's funny? Well, it's not Gary Larson quality, but I think the tone is similar.

    5. For me the real absurdity is in the discrepancy between the various ways that people understand tenure. I have seen at least the following positions being expressed: Tenured professors supposedly...

      1) Can do whatever they want, including actions pretty much as bizarre as those in the cartoon, without suffering any consequences;

      2) Can stop doing what they are paid for (like, say, teaching state of the art science instead of creationism) without suffering any consequences;

      3) Can publicly express unwelcome political and religious positions without being fired for them;

      4) Can conduct research freely, meaning that university management may not tell them to drop a line of research because it might lead to unwelcome conclusions.

      It is the combination of the last two that I interpret to be the meaning of academic freedom, whereas I consider the first two to be popular misconceptions. I don't know what the SMBC author thought, maybe #1 is how he does see tenure. But intended or not, to me the take home message of the cartoon in question is that it exposes #1 as the ludicrous misunderstanding that it is. A reader of average intelligence will realise that OF COURSE in real life a tenured professor still can't (and won't) do that.

    6. How is the cartoon offensive? After all, why *couldn't* a professor say that their academic freedom doesn't include obeying rules on nudity, which after all simply exist because some religions think the body is sinful?

    7. I think it would be too easy to say that religious prudery is the sole reason for nudity taboos. To quote Terry Pratchett,

      "Perdita thought, to take an example at random, that things like table manners were a stupid and regressive idea. Agnes, on the other hand, was against being hit by flying bits of other people's cabbage."

      Something very similar applies to the idea that we show respect to each other by wearing appropriate clothing in a social context even if it is obvious that what is "appropriate" is a very subjective judgement.

    8. Somehow I never thought to associate the word cartoon with reality. As for offence, that depends on whose ox is being gored.

      Nudity is funny (at least to me) Fraud is not as funny. But if you could depict bogus courses as succinctly in a simple line drawing, I think the cartoon could be about this topic.

  6. If one looks at what the majors of athletes in the football and basketball programs are at Division 1 schools, they will be found to in no way reflect the distribution of the rest of the student body. One would be hard put to find anyone on the traveling squads who is majoring in the sciences, mathematics or engineering, which at most state schools, includes about 1/2 the undergraduate student body.