Point of View

Steps for UNC’s chancellor-elect to restore school’s reputation

April 15, 2013 


UNC chancellor-elect Carol Folt

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Like many North Carolinians, we are excited that UNC-Chapel Hill will have its first female chancellor. It’s wonderful to see a woman at the helm of the oldest public university, with a distinguished history and proud traditions. Lux libertas.

But the light on the hill is flickering. The university’s reputation has been marred by a series of scandals: under-the-table payments to athletes, no-show classes that supported a dishonest athletic eligibility system, misuse of funds in the development office and the spectacle of a rape survivor being prosecuted by an honor system she had publicly indicted for its procedural shortcomings and insensitivity.

For some time now, we have been dismayed by the university’s reluctance to trace problems to their source and to take all appropriate corrective actions. We humbly offer a few suggestions to the chancellor-elect to help clean up some of the messes that she’s inherited.

Expensive outside consultants are not the answer. True solutions must come from within, and the seeds for those solutions need a little sunshine. A circle-the-wagons mentality has taken root at least among a certain cadre of UNC’s leaders, and measures must be taken to discourage that attitude in the future. Transparency, disclosure and integrity must be paramount at every step of the problem-solving process. Instead of heaping blame on one or two convenient scapegoats, the university must confront the systemic flaws that have produced our many recent failures.

The bureaucracy needs to be reformed. Like many universities, UNC has too many levels of administration, and it is too often unresponsive to the human needs of our community. Responsibility is so diffused that “plausible deniability” is assured for all. Streamline our governing structures.

When administrators fail in their duties, hold them accountable. Encourage all university employees and students to divulge problems, to speak up when they are bothered by what they see, to report wrongdoing they have witnessed or experienced. Reward outspokenness, don’t shun the truth-tellers.

Our athletic department must recalibrate its objectives. The need for revenue and the need to comply with NCAA metrics of success have meant that the goal of players’ intellectual growth consistently takes a backseat to other concerns, especially in the so-called revenue sports. When we admit students to the university, we need to ensure that they are getting real educations that will prepare them for life after college.

Our “honor” system is in shambles. While a student-led system used to be one of the great Carolina traditions, it has become a source of unending frustration and embarrassment. The idea of students holding each other accountable is a noble one, but it hasn’t been working for quite some time.

Dismantle the current system and work with students, faculty and staff to create a new one.

Allow for thorough investigations of allegations of harassment and discrimination. Hire competent staff to handle these sensitive issues. Don’t tolerate retaliation in any form. Foster the instinct to believe and sympathize with those who seek support.

Stop hiding behind the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Parking tickets, for example, hardly constitute an educational concern. And even real educational records can be released in aggregate, with individual identities protected, so that the university community and the state can see and understand patterns of behavior they have every right to analyze. While student privacy is important, transparency and accountability to the taxpayers of North Carolina are equally important.

Sometimes the bravest act of leadership is to admit fault. The larger the faults, the greater the bravery required. While the office of university counsel, with its laser-like focus on legal liabilities, may disagree with us, we believe that owning up to our mistakes is the first and essential step needed to ensure we don’t repeat them in the future. Let “light and liberty” prevail!

Melinda Manning is a former Assistant Dean of Students and Mary Willingham is the assistant director for the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jay M. Smith, a professor of history, also contributed.

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