Ford

Character check at Chapel Hill campus

September 22, 2012 

The turmoil at UNC-Chapel Hill will leave some people expressing relief – just as one might express relief after a house fire that wasn’t so bad as to render the place uninhabitable after repairing all the smoke and water damage.

Point taken. But when a cascade of scandals leads finally to the self-imposed resignation of a well-regarded chancellor, who asserts that his departure at the academic year’s end will be in the university’s best interest even amid a clamor for him to remain, the damage has to be rated as severe.

The university will continue to educate thousands of young North Carolinians – at least, educate those who have the initiative and curiosity to seize a terrific opportunity that’s still largely funded by the state’s taxpayers.

It will continue to be a national center of research, especially in the life sciences, and a magnet for federal funds in support of that research and thus of the regional economy.

The Chapel Hill brand will continue to denote scholarly excellence in a host of fields.

But when it turns out there was something rotten in the state of Denmark, so to speak, people notice. Reputations suffer. Quality is placed at risk.

The over-arching issue at this institution that has been North Carolina’s brightest beacon of enlightenment to the South and the nation is simply this: integrity.

It’s not necessary here to recite the litany of corrupt – yes, corrupt – practices that afflicted first the football program, then spread through the support network for student-athletes to infect an academic department.

Or to relate in detail how the university’s top fundraiser, a former star athlete himself, exploited his influence to benefit both him and the woman he was seeing, who happens to be the mother of a Tar Heel basketball great and who was well-provided for with university jobs.

Both of those individuals now have resigned. A football coach has been fired (with a hefty contract payout), and the head of the African and Afro-American Studies department has been ousted. And last week, Chancellor Holden Thorp decided to relinquish his post and return to his chemistry professorship.

The last straw for Thorp: His approval of the arrangement under which the then-vice chancellor in charge of fundraising ended up taking personal trips with his woman friend and fellow employee at university expense.

Is it any wonder that this saga spurs a degree of morbid fascination? On other high-profile campuses last week, professors, deans and presidents could burrow into the details transmitted over their quasi-official grapevine, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“In the end, it was death by a thousand cuts for H. Holden Thorp,” began a long article in the Sept. 17 Chronicle. Thorp was quoted as having told the faculty chairperson, “They wore me down.” Wonder whom he meant by “they” – would it be the news organizations, chiefly this newspaper, that have bored in to expose academic fraud benefiting the too-big-to-fail athletics machine as well as abuse of office by the chancellor’s underlings?

Integrity on a campus starts with the simple things, such as safeguards against cheating and plagiarism. It extends to the implicit contract between faculty and students: Professors who expect their students to do their best to learn must do their best to teach.

That contract was broken by the chairman of African and Afro-American Studies, who let athletes, especially football players, skate through in courses that didn’t meet and had no regular plan of instruction – all clearly with the aim of letting those players make good enough grades so they could remain eligible to compete.

This form of higher-order cheating evidently went on for years. Its existence should not have been a mystery, either elsewhere within the department or within the university’s academic command structure. Yet those who could have stopped it averted their gaze. Or perhaps they were intimidated by the athletics powerhouse, with huge revenue streams from television and the contributions of wealthy fans hinging on wins.

To uphold academic integrity means as well to uphold academic standards. But standards, and integrity, were sacrificed in the name of athletics. Some faculty members publicly have stood against this pernicious tide. Others have stood mute, as if ignoring it could make it go away.

The leadership and arguably character vacuum at the UNC system’s most nationally prominent campus occurs as the system itself confronts new political cross-currents reflecting a conservative swing on the Board of Governors, which is undertaking a system-wide strategic review.

That makes this a pivotal time for UNC-Chapel Hill, where ideals of broadly accessible higher education, grounded in the sciences and liberal arts, must be sustained against pressures to cut costs and restrict opportunity.

The self-inflicted wounds that culminated in Thorp’s pending resignation should prompt reflection on athletics’ outsized role and on the obligations of those who serve as the university’s stewards. The wounds cannot become an excuse to punish a university whose ideals and mission have been so vital to North Carolina’s progress.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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