From the Editor

UNC sends mixed signals with disciplinary actions

Executive EditorFebruary 19, 2011 

Butch Davis got hugged. Bonnie Yankaskas got slugged.

These two prominent cases at UNC-Chapel Hill raise difficult issues about what happens to the leader when things go wrong.

Both have been reported prominently in The News & Observer and nationally.

Yankaskas, an epidemiologist, has supervised a project for 15 years that compiles and analyzes mammogram data.

A hacker infiltrated a database she oversees. The breach endangered 180,000 patient files, including about 114,000 Social Security numbers.

Yankaskas says she shouldn't be held responsible for a lapse by an information technology staffer. But UNC disagreed. She's been demoted from full to associate professor and her pay cut from $178,000 a year to $93,000.

Davis, UNC's football coach for four seasons, has overseen the program during a time of scrutiny from the group that runs college sports, the NCAA. UNC's problems stem from impermissible gifts provided to players by agents and others; and improper academic help provided by a tutor.

Also, associate head coach John Blake resigned under pressure in September; his lawyers said he took gifts from a sports agent to pay for his son's private school tuition. There is evidence Blake helped the agent.

Chancellor Holden Thorp concluded Davis knew nothing of the wrongdoing and said in November that Davis would continue as head coach. After UNC's win at Duke on Nov. 27, Thorp and Davis embraced on the field.

Unequal punishments

Did UNC handle thesecases with consistency? Art Padilla, a professor and the head of the Department of Management at N.C. State, says yes. Padilla is the author of a book on the leadership shown by college presidents.

"Based on what you guys have reported, they've been handled quite consistently," Padilla said. "They've held accountable the person closest to the act or misdeed."

I partly disagree with Padilla. Yes, Blake was directly involved in wrongdoing and was held accountable.

But Yankaskas wasn't the person closest to the security breach. That was the tech person for the cancer research project. UNC won't speak specifically about that person but has said members of Yankaskas' staff were disciplined.

Regardless, Yankaskas was punished for the problems in her area, and Davis was not.

Thorp was involved in each decision. He decided Davis would continue as coach. In the Yankaskas case, he upheld the recommendation of a faculty committee.

Thorp said UNC handled the cases consistently. He said there were major differences.

"We don't have any evidence that Butch Davis was negligent," he said in an interview.

What did Davis know? Davis said he did not know of any of the misdeeds at UNC. But Davis might have been the last recruiter in college football to learn that Blake, whom he'd known for 30 years, was considered by his peers to be a guy who cut corners.

UNC's excuses weak

Steve Spurrier, the coach at South Carolina, said he was not surprised by reports about Blake. "Let me just say this: When you've been in coaching as long as I have, we know the reputation of almost all the coaches out there that have been around a long time," Spurrier said. "We all have a reputation, especially guys who've coached 20 years or so. It's hard to hide whatever your reputation is."

Thorp said another difference in the two cases is that Blake's misdeed - accepting money from an agent - involved his personal life and Yankaskas' involved her work at UNC.

But if Blake helped the agent, as some news outlets have reported, that would involve his work as a football coach. (The N&O might be able to get to the bottom of this if UNC would release all of Blake's phone records from his university cell phone.)

A UNC faculty member can be dismissed for neglect of duty. But the faculty committee didn't recommend Yankaskas' dismissal.

The committee questioned the qualifications of the staffer with primary responsibility for security. That staffer had been given that responsibility by Yankaskas.

Yankaskas "was not recklessly ignorant of security concerns," the committee wrote, but did not keep up with changes in security. "She did discuss security with her staff. ... She was attuned to the importance of confidentiality as well as security."

The faculty committee said principal investigators should not be required to be experts in computer security. It recommended a review of security practices at UNC.

"The problem appears to the Committee to be a systemic one, not a case of an individual faculty member and PI acting egregiously," the committee wrote.

Many say college football has a systemic problem with sports agents.

An incentive to ignore

No two personnel cases are identical. But for Davis and Yankaskas, there are more similarities than differences, in my view.

Intended or not, two communities at UNC received different messages.

The UNC medical research community now knows it's responsible for the security of its data.

The UNC athletics community received a different message: If you don't know about wrongdoing, you can survive problems with the NCAA.

Leaders and managers respond to incentives, just like everyone else.

If you know you are going to be held accountable for your group's actions, regardless of whether you know about those actions, your incentive is to seek information. You weed out problems before they doom your career.

If history shows that you won't be held accountable if you don't know, you avoid information about your staff and its activities. You ignore warning signs.

Thorp has embraced Davis, literally and figuratively. Thorp wasn't chancellor when Davis was hired, but there's no mistaking it now: Butch Davis is his guy.

As for Yankaskas, she is no longer UNC's woman. She and UNC are headed to mediation.

john.drescher@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4515

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