Forward steps for UNC

All stones must be unearthed as a former governor looks at the UNC-Chapel Hill scandal.

August 17, 2012 

Holden Thorp, chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, a university embroiled in an academic and athletics scandal, has taken some positive steps toward pulling the school out of what has now been a long-running and embarrassing controversy. Thorp, a distinguished scholar at the university before his rise to the top job, cares about the place passionately, to be sure.

His appointment of former Gov. Jim Martin and a national management consulting firm to dig deeper into academic fraud that has come to light could be what’s necessary to finally expose the scandal’s full dimensions and put safeguards in place to keep anything similar from happening again.

Martin, a former chemistry professor at Davidson College with a doctorate from Princeton, certainly understands how universities work, or should. And as governor of North Carolina for eight years, a Republican with a Democratic majority in the legislature, he’s familiar with the duties and difficulties of public life and public institutions.

The consulting firm, Virchow, Krause & Co., has offices all over the United States and is respected. Its duty is to do a thorough job of looking into academic irregularities or curiosities in addition to those that have been exposed recently involving former football and basketball player Julius Peppers and his relationship with the African and Afro-American Studies department.

That department, with a former chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, apparently friendly to athletes, had come under unflattering scrutiny already because of courses in which athletes were enrolled, but received no instruction. They did, however, receive grades, in Peppers’ case mostly good ones.

When the probe is over, former Cornell University President Hunter Rawlings, who now heads a national educational association, will review findings.

Thorp has already made some welcome changes. The academic support structure for athletes will no longer have an administrative input from the Department of Athletics. That was never a good idea. And Thorp is adding people to oversee the types of courses in which athletes are enrolled.

All this is good. Thorp has been under heavy criticism for not taking this kind of action sooner, and he should have. Damage has been done. And the university should have been more forthcoming with records and data requested by news organizations, including The News & Observer, which has uncovered many of the problems.

Now the test will be to see if Martin’s appointment, efforts of the consulting firm and Rawlings’ input will bring all problems to the attention of North Carolinians who rightly have high expectations that their university will operate all its programs, including athletics, with high integrity.

Finally, Thorp and UNC system President Tom Ross have an opportunity here to teach, to show members of the university community the need to put athletics in the proper perspective and not let it define this or any other university. For UNC-Chapel Hill has reaped the sad consequences of what happens when the push for “big-time” sports throws a university’s mission out of balance.

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