Editorial

Hard lessons

Buffeted by scandal, UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor seeks stronger course oversight.

September 28, 2012 

At one point during a Wednesday meeting with reporters and editors of The News & Observer, Holden Thorp reckoned the job of chancellor to be one that’s a lot more challenging these days. He said it in a resigned way, not complaining, but as one perspective on the four years plus that he’s occupied the job he’ll be leaving in June.

He’s right. And though athletics has always presented challenges, the high pressure to produce big-time teams has never been more intense. That proved to be perhaps the most daunting challenge for Thorp, a scientist, teacher and dean in Chapel Hill for virtually his entire career. He acknowledges he may have underestimated that challenge, and that he might have put too much trust in the people and the system around him.

And while he was not forced from the job, there’s no question that an athletics scandal that bled into the academic mission of the university made a return to the faculty mighty attractive to the 48-year-old Thorp, who now will be dealing with several investigations regarding athletics and academics, one headed by former Gov. Jim Martin.

So what has Thorp learned, and how will he apply that painfully acquired knowledge in the final months of his tenure?

Higher standards?

There will be higher admission standards for athletes in the future, partly because the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, has approved them for 2016. But Thorp indicated UNC-CH may raise standards before that. Good.

And he says there likely will be fewer admission “exceptions,” by which students with special talents (typically athletes) are admitted when they don’t meet normal standards. Clearly, under Butch Davis, the former football coach whom Thorp fired, this was abused. In five years, some 53 football players were admitted as exceptions. That needs to be extremely rare, not relatively common.

Thorp believes the university will admit better students as athletes, and he said universities had to consider the role athletics plays, and the importance big-time sports commands, in campus life. But he did not say that trying to have major college sports coexist with top-flight academics was hopeless.

Many presidents and chancellors at big-time schools have pronounced the two missions compatible, only to be burned by scandal later. It is a question that demands ongoing discussion.

Those classes

The chancellor says he realizes that oversight of classes and departments has not been what it should be, and he has changed that. The cause of the scrutiny was the African and Afro-American Studies Department, which, as this newspaper discovered, apparently sponsored classes with no instruction that seemed to favor football players in terms of grading. Thorp said Martin and his auditors will be looking at all pertinent transcripts to determine where fraud may have existed. That’s as it should be.

The investigations are a good path, but the university’s next chancellor will need to bring a strong administrative hand to bear on athletics as well as academics. Many schools have learned that big-money boosters can quickly create a win-no-matter-what atmosphere that is the incubator of scandal.

For 50 years, UNC-Chapel Hill avoided such scandal and boasted of doing things right, the “Carolina Way.” In a matter of months, the university was under sanction from the NCAA and looking at shocking academic fraud. Chancellor Thorp seems to have learned from the experience. But can he teach others?

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