Point of View

At UNC-CH, deficits of democracy and leadership led to scandal

February 18, 2013 

UNC-Chapel Hill has been suffering from an athletic scandal that refuses to go away. What is easy to miss behind the accumulating mass of embarrassing and perplexing detail is the dual deficit that is at the root of the scandal.

First, there is a democratic deficit at UNC-Chapel Hill, result of a decades-old accommodation between the faculty and the administration. The faculty accepts its practical exclusion from critical institutional decisions (with curricular matters excepted) on the grounds that it can better focus on teaching duties and career advancing research.

Senior university administrators for their part welcome faculty abstinence, which frees their hands in dealing with a sometimes difficult set of groups with a stake in the university including legislators, alumni, the Rams Club, the Board of Trustees, the Board of Governors, the head of the Athletic Department, the development office and the donors the office cultivates.

This bargain may make good sense in the setting in which the university must function, but the price is a lack of significant faculty engagement in the overall operation of the institution. Just visit any faculty council meeting for an innervating, stage-managed series of reports and presentations.

There is also a leadership deficit on campus as senior administrators continue to subscribe to the fiction that the jewels of the athletic program (basketball and football) complement or at least do not compromise the academic mission of the university.

Deeply implicated in malpractices that have now become public, administrators have demonstrated a striking if understandable lack of curiosity about the sources and nature of widely publicized misdeeds even as they make properly deprecatory clucking noises.

After failing to get ahead of the scandal and then getting tarred by athletics-related improprieties in the development office, chancellor Holden Thorp had the good sense and decency to resign. He vowed to use his remaining time in office to deal with mounting internal problems.

Yet information dribbles out in bits and pieces while superficial, inconclusive reports continue to pile up. The questions on the table for months are still unanswered, and the most recent report, this one nominally penned by former Gov. James Martin, suggests the profound reluctance of those asked to investigate to do so.

The chancellor has yet to secure a convincing accounting of what went wrong, to propose appropriate remedial measures based on a full understanding of the scandal and to set a course that will spare the university a repeat of this dismal, dispiriting experience. A leader who has made innovation and entrepreneurship his rallying cry has shown in this matter so critical to the reputation and future of the university neither entrepreneurial initiative nor a capacity for innovation.

The line of argument pursued here does suggest a way forward. Faculty must press for genuine oversight so that it becomes possible to ask the hard questions about the role of athletics and to insist on straight, full answers, especially on the operation of pre-professional sports programs in which students in the college of arts and sciences participate.

For their part, administrators must realize that though sidelining the faculty may make their lives easier, the resulting habit of passivity is deeply harmful to the task of keeping the university true to its fundamental mission.

A time of trouble creates an opportunity to rethink an ingrained top-down management style and to involve faculty in governance in a meaningful way on a permanent basis. These steps will not make the scandal go away, but they will set the operation of the university on a firmer foundation and make future scandals less likely.

Michael H. Hunt, the Everett H. Emerson Professor Emeritus at UNC-CH, taught in the history department from 1980 to 2008. He remains active in his specialty of U.S. foreign relations.

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