MILWAUKEE — After the University of Wisconsin-Parkside concluded that one of its tenured professors had "engaged in fraudulent grading" within a six-year time span, she quietly resigned at the end of the spring semester.
But her teaching career didn't end there. This summer, Sahar Bahmani taught at UW-Milwaukee, another university within the same college system. University officials offered her a one-year, $125,000 non-faculty teaching position to stay on for this school year.
She resigned from UW-Milwaukee in early August, three weeks after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network, requested records on the case. The university's chancellor Deborah Ford, who was employed at the same time as Bahmani, left UW-Parkside earlier this year and moved to a chancellor role at Indiana University Southeast.
Bahmani said she never agreed to the grade inflation allegations and Ford told her she'd keep her record "clean." Ford declined an interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
UW-Parkside received no student complaints about Bahmani in her final semester of teaching, said Pitsch, a spokesman for the University of Wisconsin system. Both UW-Parkside and UWM are reviewing her grades in other courses.
What did the University of Wisconsin-Parkside find?
Officials from the school's business department found that Bahmani gave most of the students who she taught in an online degree program the highest possible grade even when they turned in partial work or no work at all, according to university records obtained by the Journal Sentinel.
Bahmani said the grading errors were due to medical issues, confusion with the grading system, and that her actions didn't amount to "grade fraud."
"I did not do any of this intentionally and the term fraud has the element of intent," she wrote in response to written questions. "Doctors know and documented it was not in my control at all."
The executive committee of the university's business department feared her grading errors in the online program would damage the business school's reputation, jeopardize its accreditation, and threaten the integrity of the entire institution, according to a complaint sent to Chancellor Deborah Ford in Nov. 2022.
"By falsifying grades, Dr. Bahmani has exposed us all to the real possibility that people in the community will begin questioning whether any UW-Parkside degree is legitimate," the complaint reads.
In the complaint, the department also alleges she assigned herself to 11 courses in disciplines she wasn't academically qualified to teach and abused her power for financial gain. Bahmani was the head of the degree program.
How did the case come to light?
Casey Warning logged into his University of Wisconsin-Parkside student account last summer and noticed something odd. His transcript showed he had completed his business law and ethics course and earned the highest grade — except he hadn't yet turned in any work for the class.
Warning told his professor about the error, according to emails reviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Then in the fall, he noticed the wrong grade still showed up on his transcript.
"I am confused, why are these grading issues yet again (happening)?" he wrote in an email to business college leaders. "My moral and ethical compass doesn't allow me to take credit for things that I have not done."
Warning didn't know it at the time, but the grading errors he flagged set off an extensive investigation into Bahmani's grading patterns.
Warning is still working toward his Flex degree, but he's disappointed Bahmani's actions went unnoticed for so long.
Professor landed job at UW-Milwaukee
A complaint is the first step in the UW-Parkside faculty disciplinary process.
The next step is for an investigation led by the university's chancellor. Because Bahmani "accepted the complaint allegations as true," the university did not investigate the case, according to university records. She offered to resign at the end of the school year.
Bahmani remained on the university's payroll for another six months and taught at least two courses in the spring 2023 semester.
UWM officials didn't know about the UW-Parkside investigation at the time it offered her the extended role in June and would not have had the university known, said Pitsch. UWM declined to provide the reference letters Bahmani included in her application to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, citing an exemption in the state public records law.
Bahmani declined to say who her references were, why she resigned from the UWM job, and whether she plans to seek a teaching position in the future or is leaving academia for good.
Bahmani: University officials agreed to keep her personnel file 'clean'
Bahmani told the Journal Sentinel that Ford told her half the department complaint was "meritless" and agreed to keep Bahmani's personnel file "clean." The complaint was not in Bahmani's employee file and was obtained by the Journal Sentinel through a separate request.
Pitsch said UW-Parkside has established stricter oversight practices for the online program in which Bahmani taught.
The UW System anticipates updating its hiring policies by the end of 2023 to minimize the chances of other UW System universities hiring employees who engage in misconduct," he said.
"The actions of Dr. Sahar Bahmani do not reflect the values or ethical practices of UW-Parkside, its Business Department, or the UW System," he said in a statement. "When a faculty committee presented its findings, the university secured Dr. Bahmani’s resignation."
Bahmani said she never accepted the complaint's allegations as true and that business college leaders should have supervised her more closely to catch the errors.
Despite UW-Parkside later confirming the department's allegations of fraudulent grading were "substantially accurate," Bahmani described her department as hostile and out to get her with an unfair, biased investigation.
Complaint: 'Bahmani has basically been running a scam operation'
Her former department had a different take.
“There is no other way to put this: Bahmani has basically been running a scam operation, defrauding students of their tuition without providing any learning in return,” a professor on the department's executive committee said in the complaint. “The sheer contempt and disregard by Bahmani for her chosen profession of teaching is truly breathtaking."
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Bahmani earned her undergraduate economics degree from UW-Madison and her doctorate in economics from UW-Milwaukee. She joined UW-Parkside in 2011.
By 2021 to 2022, Bahmani was the university's second highest-paid professor, earning $185,000, according to UW System salary records. That included a $30,000 stipend for serving as director of UW-Parkside's online Flex degree program and more than $30,000 for teaching 14 Flex courses, including 11 the complaint said were beyond her subject expertise.
Grade problems occurred in UW-Parkside's online Flex degree program
Bahmani's grading errors involved the Flex program, a competency-based online degree program geared toward working adults.
UW-Parkside data show nearly half of Flex students fail on their first try, requiring them to re-take in another subscription period. Instructors are paid based on the number of students enrolled in the course per month. Only 18 students have graduated from 2019 through 2022, including at least one student who took Bahmani’s course without submitting all required assignments, according to the complaint.
University records show Bahmani awarded the highest grade to all 75 students enrolled in three of her courses between September 2021 and August 2022 despite 18 students submitting partial or no work.
Officials studied the 296 assignments students turned in for those classes and found that 295 of them received 100% scores, even on quizzes with incorrect answers.
For 10 other Flex courses taught over the same time period by multiple instructors including Bahmani, Bahmani awarded the highest grade to 85% of her students while others did for 41% of students.
Confronted with the grading irregularities by university officials last October, Bahmani offered explanations the complaint characterized as evasive, inconsistent, and, in some cases, blatantly false.
Bahmani also painted a chaotic picture of the Flex program, with few faculty covering too many courses and students learning by watching YouTube videos. The UW System denied her account.
She also said she was confused with the online grading system and believed the computer would automatically remove students not submitting assignments from the course. Her colleagues were skeptical of the explanation because she had used the online system for many years without raising questions, the records show.
A few days after meeting with the department, Bahmani resigned from the Flex program, citing medical issues.
The University's business department estimates Bahmani's grading practices cost UW-Parkside $202,500 in lost tuition revenue from students who didn't pass courses and should have had to re-enroll — about 28 students.
The university plans to offer them a free and voluntary retake option, said Pitsch.
UW-Parkside admits to little oversight of program to accrediting body of university
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the accrediting body for UW-Parkside's business school, received and reviewed a complaint about Bahmani and sent a "letter of concern" to officials in June.
In an Aug. 1 report to accreditors, UW-Parkside admitted there was little oversight of the program but outlined corrective measures, such as more individuals involved in course assignments and quarterly report reviews.
The accrediting body did not revoke accreditation.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin fraudulent grade scandal: Professor hired by another school