Bill Friday was entirely too decent, and too fond of the university from which the University of North Carolina system grew, to take any vindictive pleasure in the humiliation now being visited upon the Chapel Hill campus.
Yet Friday was entitled to a grand “told you so” for his warnings, down the years, that the college sports colossus was a beast on the loose, threatening to make a mockery of academic standards.
Of all the places for that beast to rampage: proud UNC-Chapel Hill, the nation’s oldest public university, the place that more than any other gave North Carolina its 20th-century reputation as the most forward-thinking among the Southern states.
But the siren song of sports glory was too seductive. Basketball championships masterminded by Dean Smith and his devotees weren’t enough, nor was the Tar Heels’ own perfectly respectable football tradition. The sights would be set on the football stratosphere – national rankings, premier bowl games, plentiful exposure for the UNC brand (as if sports prowess really matters).
Maybe it would be harder for a promising football recruit to gain admission to Carolina, and maybe he couldn’t be expected to keep pace with all those out-of-state valedictorians who managed to claw their way in – but once here, that “student-athlete” would benefit from a high-powered academic support system aimed at making sure his grades were good enough so that he’d remain eligible to play.
That’s where the fraud commenced. As to just how it happened that the chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies department ended up as the instructor of record in a passel of phony courses seemingly catering to athletes, it hasn’t yet been explained. And it’s fair to wonder at this point if it ever will be.
The university was sufficiently chagrined by findings aired largely in this newspaper that Chancellor Holden Thorp commissioned an investigation headed by former Gov. Jim Martin, bolstered by an auditing firm.
Martin, besides sterling political credentials as a two-term Republican governor and six-term congressman, has the higher education chops to wade into an academic scandal and pass credible judgment. The former Davidson College professor has a Princeton doctorate and still refers to himself as a chemist.
When he visited The N&O last week for a helpful status report, there was no leaping to conclusions. But it was hard not to sense, in his understated, wry tone, a disdain for the irregularities he’s been asked to explore.
A faculty member who apparently oversaw courses that didn’t meet and had no actual instruction, simply a required term paper, to suit the needs of some football and basketball players? And with nobody in the academic hierarchy picking up on the scam – or worse, if they were aware, declining to act?
“It’s pretty ingenious he was able to get away with it,” said Martin. As in, how could they have let him?
The prof in question, Julius Nyang’oro, lost his chairmanship and was allowed to retire. With prosecutors also sniffing around, it’s not surprising he’s gone mute. Martin indicated he thought it was futile even to try to question him.
Let’s hope the governor and his auditing team have better luck with other, still serving members of the AFAM faculty and with students, athlete and non-athlete, who took the bogus courses. Whose bright idea was this, after all? And if the investigators flush out any similar patterns in other departments, let them bore in until every party to the fraud is identified.
Friday spoke for years against the tendency of major college athletics like a parasite to sicken its host. But for all his stature, his warnings could not keep the college sports industry – an auxiliary, truth be told, of the TV industry and the professional leagues – from swelling to absurd proportions, as compared with campus endeavors that have nothing to do with entertainment.
It’s one thing for the football factories – we know where they are – to brush such concerns aside. But for the university in Chapel Hill to have done it – disrespecting the prophet on his home turf?
The praise heaped upon Friday at his death was copious, heartfelt and totally deserved. Through his leadership, the UNC system became a keystone in North Carolina’s civic architecture. Those who have used a low cost, high quality college education obtained in this state to pave the way both to good careers and to good citizenship must number in the hundreds of thousands.
Friday now will be conspicuously absent as a panel to which he’d been appointed calibrates the system’s direction for the future. He would have been a voice both for high standards and for maximum opportunity, as determined not by the needs of business but by the aspirations of students and scholars and the needs of society at large.
Let his monument be public universities that refrain from embracing athletics as an industry and that resist all the forces that would constrict their mission and tarnish their honor.
Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.