Comment

UNC leaders have responded poorly

The Martin report continues UNC’s pattern of weak inquiries into problems with athletics and academics

December 23, 2012 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Those words evoke strong feelings in North Carolinians, no matter where they went to school. And, athletic rivalries aside, the first of those feelings is pride.

North Carolina is proud to have produced such an institution, one of the nation’s first public universities and one of its first in many respects ever since. It is a place of achievement, tolerance and discovery that reflects the state’s sense of being an enlightened leader among Southern states.

That pride is what makes the multiple inquiries into problems with UNC academics and athletics especially discouraging. People in North Carolina and many beyond thought the school on the hill was different. Now it seems much the same as lesser schools that bend academic standards to win games.

But if UNC-CH suffers from the winning-is-the-only-thing mania that warps values and priorities, surely it would be different in how it responded when big-time athletics undermined its academic standards. The university would root it out, hold the offenders responsible and amend its ways.

That was the expectation. It hasn’t been the response. Indeed, the response has been in ways more disillusioning than the offenses – marked first by a lack of curiosity and then by a lack of candor. Now it has moved to denial.

Limited review

The latest chapter came Thursday with the long-awaited release of findings from an investigation conducted by former governor and congressman Jim Martin. Martin was and is a good public servant, but his report wasn’t a public service.

Martin’s report presented a close examination of what the public already knew: Many classes offered by UNC’s African and Afro-American Studies Department were no-show frauds. But after telling the public what it knew, the report declared what the public can’t believe: “Based on our work, we conclude that this matter was truly academic in nature and not an athletic scandal as originally speculated, and that the identified academic misconduct and anomalies were isolated to the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.”

Thus Martin, who entered as the searching inquisitor, exited looking like a credulous university supporter, a ram in wolf’s clothing.

It would be unfair to say Martin ignored evidence of collusion between the UNC athletics department and the African and Afro American Studies Department in which athletes were disproportionately enrolled. But it is fair to say that he didn’t look far. He stuck to his narrow charge and delivered a thin acquittal.

Nonetheless, the report brought another round of assurances from UNC leadership to the effect of “that’s it, nothing to see here, move along.” But the people watching, and it’s a big crowd, a national audience, know there has been much to see, and they suspect there’s still much that needs to come to light.

Though the Martin report came up small, several other reviews are still underway that could yield more. One that’s particularly promising is an SBI inquiry into Julius Nyang’oro, the now-retired and submarine silent former chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department. Investigators are looking at whether he illegally accepted $12,000 in state salary for a 2011 summer class he never taught. Eighteen of the 19 students enrolled in that class were UNC football team members and one was a former football player.

Get to the truth

A criminal investigation is apparently the only way Nyang’oro can be compelled to explain why he set up the no-show courses and how athletes came to be enrolled in them. The same goes for his former department administrator, Deborah Crowder, also retired and not speaking.

The Martin report offers the “bad apples” conclusion that Nyang’oro and Crowder initiated the academic fraud and that it ended with their departure. Isolating blame to control damage has been the pattern since a single tweet from then-UNC football player Marvin Austin started the scrutiny of UNC’s athletics and then its academics.

The problems were limited to Austin, or to a tutor, or to an assistant coach, or to head coach Butch Davis. Now it’s limited to Nyang’oro and Crowder.

In its passive search for the truth, UNC leadership appears more concerned about protecting its image than about getting to the bottom of what went wrong and why. In that, leaders have ignored the wisdom of North Carolina’s motto: “To be, rather than to seem.”

Now it’s time for the SBI and the Orange County prosecutor to use their legal leverage to get the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Let’s hope they start by putting Nyang’oro under a bright light and saying, “OK, Julius, seeming’s over. Let’s be.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at nbarnett@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4512

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