Comment

Jenkins: Should the chancellor punt on athletics?

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comApril 24, 2013 

It’s easy to understand why Holden Thorp, outgoing chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, would suggest, as he did to The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill, that perhaps chancellors and university presidents would do well to step back from oversight of major athletic programs. Thorp, a faculty star at the university before becoming chancellor five years ago, is leaving for Washington University in St. Louis at least in part because of athletics and academic scandal that came to light on his watch.

For two years now, The N&O has reported on a football program run amok, and an academic department, African studies, that seemed to be a favorite stop for athletes who fancied the idea of courses with no lectures and only a paper due at semester’s end. The academic advising system for those athletes seemed to encourage less-than-challenging course work.

It is no understatement to say the entire mess has been a monumental embarrassment for a university that often boasted of it’s squeaky-clean, high standards for athletes, calling it the “Carolina Way.” Turned out “Wrong Way” would have been more accurate.

So now, nearing his June 30 departure in favor of Carol Folt of Dartmouth College, Thorp seems to be pondering how athletics ought to be supervised in the future. Stancill reported he had told Folt that handling athletics had become the most important part of the chancellor’s job.

“That’s not right that it’s that way,” he said. Certainly he’s correct about that. But the notion he expressed in The N&O report, that perhaps the athletics program should be more in the control of athletics directors to free chancellors for more important duty, is woefully misguided. A lack of control from the top, the top being the chancellor’s or president’s office, is what has gotten entirely too many universities in trouble.

Athletics programs at schools the size of Chapel Hill have become behemoths, with many schools building palaces for basketball and football, including something that’s particularly distasteful at public schools, luxury skyboxes for wealthy boosters. Driving this “movement,” a nickname for it more distinguished than it ought to be, is huge revenue from television contracts that now dictate playing schedules and the push for longer schedules and more games.

Big revenue sport coaches at such schools, including UNC-CH, are making in the millions. But to earn their keep, they need players, star players, often players who have gotten special treatment in high school and even before, and who have for so long concentrated on perfecting their sport that they haven’t bulked up much when it comes to academic muscle.

In a conversation with the late William Friday, UNC system president emeritus and one of the most respected figures in the history of American higher education, I asked him about those salaries. He noted with dismay that top assistant football coaches at Chapel Hill made more than faculty members with the most prestigious special professorships.

Friday’s solution for such an outrageous misplaced priority was quite the opposite from Thorp’s. As co-chair of Knight Commission, a watchdog of big-time athletics, Friday believed presidents and chancellors needed to exercise more control, not less. Schedules needed to be shorter, not longer. Academic requirements needed to be higher, not lower. Skyboxes needed to be eliminated, not doubled. For a long time, it seemed no one was listening.

And then came scandal, at one school after another. Southern California. Ohio State. Finally, UNC-Chapel Hill. Suddenly, the man to whom few seemed to pay attention was awash in it. Literally hundreds of people wrote and called to say, “They should have listened, Mr. Friday. You were right all along.” He responded not with satisfaction, but with dismay. “No joy in that,” he told me.

Thorp is a gifted scholar and a brilliant man and a loyal son of Carolina. Wounded by athletics scandal (and headed to a school without a “big time” program) he undoubtedly ventures his opinion as a way to spare others what happened to him. But future chancellors can save themselves from problems with athletics by following Friday’s exhortation instead. Don’t hand the reins to someone else. Pull them, and pull them hard and make it clear to coaches and athletics administrators that embarrassment and scandal will bring swift reaction and dismissal. Have it understood as well that the buck stops with the chancellor and no one else.

That could be called the Friday Way. One day, it could again be the Carolina Way.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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