It is not fair that Carol Folt, new to the job of chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been saddled with a crisis of major proportions this early in her tenure. But she has.
She did offer, in remarks to UNC-Chapel Hill trustees Thursday, some refreshing comment acknowledging that the university must take ownership of the scandal involving bogus classes in the area of African studies. Large numbers of athletes took those classes, perhaps guided there by academic counselors.
“At Carolina,” she said, “proceeding toward meaningful athletic and academic reform is requiring us to fully acknowledge and accept lessons of our past. And I think these are messages that I believe have not been made clear enough to the Carolina community and to the public.”
Prior to this statement, the university seemed to be engaged in obfuscation. And an investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin before Folt’s arrival seemed to tell university officials what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear.
So this is a good step, but far from the last step.
The reality is, as numerous reports in The News & Observer and now by CNN have demonstrated, there is a crisis on The Hill, a big one. The story involves an athletics program run amok and athletes recruited for their considerable skills on field and court but deficient in the classroom, something the university’s athletics structure seemed to regard as a minor inconvenience.
One courageous staff member, Mary Willingham, had been part of the academic counseling operation, and she’d kept quiet about athletes unqualified for college work. But then, after attending the funeral in 2012 of the man who spoke most passionately about straightening out the excesses of college sport, William Friday, Willingham bravely came forward. The president emeritus of the UNC system was her inspiration.
Willingham acted in good faith for UNC’s benefit. She had nothing to gain. She felt it was important that the university face up to the fact that it recruited athletes who clearly would have difficulty doing college work and used phony courses to keep them eligible.
For her trouble, Willingham and her research about poor reading skills of some athletes was slammed in a faculty meeting. Provost Jim Dean did his best to debunk Willingham’s research, and Chancellor Folt was in attendance. For the provost to go to such trouble to dismantle the work of Willingham calls to mind Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the line, “doth protest too much.”
Prior to her comments Thursday, Folt issued a statement suggesting the university needs “civil” debate on the issues. She was reacting to some comments she had read online.
It’s a good suggestion, but Willingham hasn’t enjoyed much “civil” debate. Folt should meet with Willingham and do so publicly and thank her for what she has done. And Dean should consider an apology.
And while it’s fine for Folt to want the university to put a multi-year crisis of its own making behind it, that will not happen without candor and full disclosure of pertinent facts, no matter how embarrassing.
When a university becomes the focal point of national stories on scandal in college athletics, it has a major crisis on its hands. Sports boosters may be worried about the impact on wins and losses, but Folt has to be concerned about the damage done to the university’s reputation for integrity.
Folt can pull the university through this, but she has to be willing to face the public consequences for UNC-Chapel Hill of potentially more disclosures of problems, and she must be agreeable to discussing all aspects of these issues, in academics and in athletics, in a public way.
For the problems won’t go away in a public relations blitz, and they won’t be diminished by attacks on people who helped to bring them to light.