Ford: Duke and Carolina – what a pair

July 14, 2012 

  • Steve Ford

    Steve Ford, The News & Observer's editorial page editor, has been with the paper since 1981, first as an editor in the news department and, since 1986, as a member of the editorial staff. He has overall responsibility for the opinion pages, reporting to the publisher.

    Ford grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated from Yale University in 1968. An Army veteran, he served in Vietnam as a photographer. He and his wife, Jeanne, live in Cary. They have three grown sons and two grandchildren. He can be reached at or at 829-4512.

No, it’s the other Duke – now the country’s biggest ’lectric company, king of all it surveys from its headquarters in Charlotte. How did the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill find itself sharing front-page territory last week with a Duke that has nothing to do with Blue Devils?

That’s what happens when two of the state’s most prominent institutions get into pickles of their own making, with the full extent of their dilemmas still unknown.

In the university’s case, a series of embarrassing disclosures wrenched into public view largely through this newspaper’s reporting show a pattern whereby academic standards were subverted in the interests of big-time athletics.

True, the problems involve sham courses in just one department. But the university’s overall reputation is bound to be dinged – the more so if officials continue to focus more on damage control than on rooting out the details of what actually happened, why and how.

Duke Energy’s crisis erupted shockingly, just as the company completed its long-sought merger with Raleigh-based Progress Energy. Scarcely before he could draw a breath as Duke’s new CEO, Progress’ erstwhile chief, Bill Johnson, was given the hook.

When the state Utilities Commission hears from Johnson this week, per its summons, it will want to know: Did he have any inkling that Duke board members had lost confidence in him, as Duke boss Jim Rogers asserted? Did he spot any signs of trouble as the two companies and their executive teams prepared to merge?

After all, assurances that Johnson would be the new CEO, with Rogers taking the post of executive chairman, were key to Progress going along with the deal, and at a less-than-optimum price.

The Utilities Commission for its part would have been looking at a different animal if the deal had shaped up as an out-and-out Duke takeover. Johnson’s heralded new role suggested that pledges of an ongoing significant corporate presence in Raleigh – where hundreds of jobs are at stake – were more than just the usual happy talk when one company swallows another.

Here’s what the commission must determine: Johnson’s a big guy, but was the one-time Penn State football lineman cynically dangled as bait to help win approval of the deal? His $44 million exit package would salve the indignity.

Or to come at it from another direction, what did the Duke board belatedly discover about Progress under Johnson’s stewardship that suddenly made him radioactive? Speaking of which, did it relate to Progress’ nuclear power troubles, especially the ill-fated Crystal River plant in Florida, where a repair project was so badly botched that the plant may never again crank out enough juice to light a light bulb? Or does Duke want to plow ahead with mega-costly repairs?

For that matter, if Duke sees Crystal River as such a huge problem, why didn’t it wise up way earlier in the process? You have to figure the Utilities Commission will want to find that out.

Jim Rogers, called before the commission Tuesday for a four-hour grilling, took a run at explaining Duke’s abrupt change of signals, even if many questions remain. Did Duke honchos really not decide until almost the last moment that Johnson just wouldn’t be a good fit in light of his “autocratic” style?

Unfortunately for UNC-Chapel Hill, nobody in a position to explain how the Department of African and Afro-American Studies became what amounts to a tool of the athletics enterprise has stepped forward to shoulder that awkward load.

Ever since a probe of “improper benefits” given to football players triggered disclosures about what can only be described as academic fraud, the university has insisted that athletes received no special treatment in so-called AFAM courses, 54 of which have been pegged as offering little or no instruction.

The pattern was for the summer courses not to have set meeting times or places; students supposedly were assigned a term paper. As The N&O reported last Sunday, athletes made up 57 percent of the 686 enrollments and former athletes made up 7 percent.

No special treatment? Who steered athletes into these courses – many of which had an announced maximum enrollment of just one student – in disproportionate numbers?

The business world is dog eat dog and profit makes that world go ’round, although power companies are held to standards of service and accountability beyond those for unregulated firms.

It may come as a shock in view of the huge revenues from their sports programs, but universities don’t exist to make money. They transfer value to students in the form of knowledge and the skills associated with scholarship. When athletes are allowed to skate through phantom courses to help keep them eligible to play, it highlights how sports have corrupted the academic mission.

Carolina’s honor is at stake. If the university hierarchy can’t or won’t ask the hard questions and demand that the fraud be fully exposed and suitably punished, then who should do it? The Utilities Commission?

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at

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