Jan Boxill’s Side of the Story


In February of 2015, Jan Boxill resigned from her teaching professorship in the Philosophy Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, following allegations of her involvement in a massive, 18-year long period of academic fraud in which some student athletes were steered towards phony classes that never met and assigned papers that were graded—when they were—by the department’s office manager, often based on the grade the student atheletes “needed.”

Following the release of a new report on the case—including a list of specific allegations against her—Boxill met with reporters from The News & Observer. The result is an article that gives more of her side of the story.

Boxill maintains she was not part of the fake class scheme in African and Afro-American Studies, led by former department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, though she often recommended AFAM courses to her students. She said she had no idea the office manager, Deborah Crowder, was grading students’ papers, though Boxill emailed Crowder about students’ work and Crowder referred to “favors.”

The accusations against Boxill largely were based on emails between her and women’s basketball players. The emails paint a picture of a faculty member who had frequent exchanges with her students, providing content and ideas while they were writing papers.

Boxill, though, said the emails were taken out of context—snippets from what were typically lengthy back-and-forth interactions with discussions, drafts and rewrites. She said she gave students ideas to get them thinking, or sample paragraphs to show them what they needed to do for themselves. It is simply, she said, an instructional approach she finds effective.

“I certainly never consciously crossed the line. But secondly, I can see why some people might say that they would do it differently,” she said. “I see this as a good teaching technique. I think most philosophy professors do, but I can see people thinking that it’s not the right way to do things. And some people might even say it’s wrong…”

Jean DeSaix, UNC teaching professor in biology, said there are some things that don’t add up about the accusations.

“On the one hand, Jan is accused of helping people too much with papers. I’m going to guess that some of those papers were for the very courses that she’s accused of knowing they weren’t really getting graded,” DeSaix said. “So why would she be spending all this time helping these students with all these papers, if she knew it wasn’t going to matter what they wrote? The logic there is just bizarre—or the lack of logic.”

The whole article is here.

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Will Behun
Will Behun
5 years ago

It seems to me that DeSaix’s question is a valid one, and at the least Wainstein’s actions seem to be heavy handed. There’s no question that this arrangement was both widespread and pernicious, but the question of what she knew is important. It’s easy to spread blame too widely; and it’s vital to make sure that the right people are held accountable. It’s tough for me, working in a very small department, to think that the chair wouldn’t know what was going on, but in a much larger department perhaps there’s considerably more compartmentalisation.

It seems to me that forcing her out was, at best, premature, based on what I’m reading here. I’m all for punishing the guilty and if in fact she was complicit in the scheme, she deserves everything she gets.Report

MXH
MXH
5 years ago

I want to bring out this part of the article into any potential discussion, because I think it’s particularly important:

“The interviews with Wainstein were grueling, Boxill said. She spent about 10 hours during two days being questioned by Wainstein and another lawyer. On the table were two notebooks filled with her emails – some that were 10 years old. She was expected to answer questions about the emails, she said, and Wainstein would not give her copies. Roden [Boxill’s attorney] calls it an “ambush.”

She didn’t take an attorney with her, she said, because people advised her it would change the dynamic. “I went in by myself in good faith,” she said.

Boxill said there’s one thing she can’t forget about those two days. It’s something Wainstein said.

“From the very beginning, he said, ‘Just keep in mind, at the end of this investigation, I will be writing my impressions,’ ” Boxill said. “When somebody says it’s their impressions, it’s a way of saying, ‘The facts don’t really matter.’ ”

Wainstein, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story, saying the report addresses Boxill in detail.”Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
5 years ago

Finally a picture of Jan that jibes with the caring and ethical person I knew in grad school. And a reminder that little snippets of email –divorced from their context — don’t show much of anything. Her treatment by UNC — dismissal without a hearing — was outrageous. And the rush to judgment by other philosophers — on this blog and elsewhere — was, well, typical.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Peter Alward
5 years ago

It never sounded like something Jan Boxill would do. Corruption seems completely out of character.Report

prime
prime
5 years ago

“‘I certainly never consciously crossed the line. But…I can see why some people might say that they would do it differently,’ she said.”

Is it really too much for Jan Boxill’s ardent supporters to acknowledge, as she implicitly seems to, that she might have unconsciously “crossed the line”? This is compatible with recognizing that she was mainly a pawn in an academic fraud scheme at UNC and a (typically) shady NCCA investigation.Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
5 years ago

@ prime

I am happy acknowledge a whole host of epistemic “might” claims, including the one you mention, and I hereby do so.Report

Kenny W
Kenny W
5 years ago

Consider this exchange (from an email dated Tuesday, September 23, 2008):

Hi Debby,
Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs. I didn’t look at the paper
but figured it was a recycled one as well, but I couldn’t figure from where!
Thanks for whatever you can do.
Jan

Deborah Crowder wrote:
> I am so sorry you are sick. That must be miserable. A bunch of folks
> are sick, but more with respiratory stuff than stomach stuff! Rest up,
> please! No worries. As long as I am here I will try to accommodate as
> many favors as possible. Did you say a D will do for ? I’m
> only asking that because 1. no sources, 2, it has absolutely nothing to
> do with the assignments for that class and 3. it seems to me to be a
> recycled paper. She took AFRI in spring of 2007 and that was likely
> for that class. dc

She’s asking for a D on a paper she “didn’t look at”, even after being informed that it has no sources, has nothing to do with the class, and appears to be “recycled”. How is this not obviously crossing the line? What missing context could possibly justify this?Report

inflation
inflation
Reply to  Kenny W
5 years ago

I’ve myself given a passable grade to a student for a paper I suspected to be plagiarized. I couldn’t prove it was plagiarized, and I wouldn’t make an accusation of plagiarism without having good evidence, so I saw no other choice. I’m assuming that’s why the “I couldn’t figure from where!” bit is relevant. She’s saying she suspects it’s stolen but can’t prove it.

Also, am I the only one who would think a “D” might be an acceptable grade for an uncited and terrible and off-topic undergrad paper? Grade inflation is out of control. If they put in *some* effort, a “D” might be appropriate.

All in all, this exchange seems to reveal more to me about how low standards are for undergrad papers in general than it does about any very specific-to-sports corruption. However, the specific suggestion of what grade is needed is a real concern (is this practice banned by college sports, that of informing instructors about what grade is needed? Perhaps it should be, but is it already?) But it seems to me that apart from that, this might be the kind of grade most any very bad undergrad paper would receive..

Isn’t the real embarrassment here how low the standards are for undergrad grades? And not that Jan B. was contributing to those low standards? And isn’t it some recognition of that fact pat of what explains the (faux?) outrage over her behavior?Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
5 years ago

“What missing context could possibly justify this?” — Kenny W

“Philosophers’ Syndrome: mistaking a failure of the imagination for an insight into necessity.” — Dan DennettReport

Kenny W
Kenny W
Reply to  Peter Alward
5 years ago

Alright, then substitute ‘possibly’ with ‘plausibly’. The problem isn’t that we can’t *imagine* some scenario on which this behavior would be appropriate. (Perhaps the assignment was to submit a recycled paper having nothing to do with the course content.) The problem is that it’s difficult to imagine a *plausible* scenario on which this would be appropriate; and you have so far declined to offer one. Is it possible that this is all innocent? Sure. Is it likely, or even remotely likely? No, it isn’t.Report

Brian
Brian
5 years ago

There is such a thing as a “pity pass.” Perhaps she knows the student well, has worked with her, felt sorry for her and the obstacles she’s faced. That explanation is wholly compatible with this snippet. Without any further context, why suppose she is part of a nefarious conspiracy?Report