UNC-CH leaders take right step in launching another academic review

February 24, 2014 

Kenneth Wainstein is a serious man with some serious business to do. The 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department has been called in to conduct an independent investigation of the academic/athletics scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wainstein served as a white-collar federal prosecutor, as homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush and as the first assistant U.S. attorney general for national security. He is now a partner in a Washington law firm and well-regarded as a tough and thorough lawyer.

Wainstein was named by UNC system President Tom Ross and UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt.

At times, over the now years-long controversy first surrounding the football program and evolving into a scandal involving bogus classes in the African studies department that catered to athletes, the university has acted as if it simply had a public relations problem. Former Chancellor Holden Thorp exited under a cloud after first underestimating the problem and then failing to fully address it.

With this latest investigation, the university has a chance to put this crisis behind it. Clearly, Folt, who became chancellor after Thorp’s departure and was the interim president at Dartmouth, believes the university has been hurt by this scandal and is ready to face up to it.

Ross, who has been too quiet about the scandal, has taken a good step here.

Woodall’s role

An earlier investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin concluded that the academic scandal was confined to African studies and appeared to put all responsibility on two people: former African studies department chair Julius Nyang’oro and department manager Deborah Crowder. It shed little light on the scandal and pronounced the problems confined to academics. That was a curious conclusion given the substantial number of athletes who were enrolled in these phony classes.

An investigation by Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall into possible fraud related to the phony classes has led to indictments. Apparently it was evidence turned up by Woodall that prompted the university to undertake another review.

It is reassuring that Woodall has praised Wainstein and expressed confidence in him.

Mary Willingham, the former academic adviser for athletes now working in a different department, was the staff member who pointed out problems. And some players appear to have been steered to easy classes for the purpose of keeping them eligible to play. Willingham says she was struck by an attack of conscience after she attended the 2012 funeral of William Friday, the UNC president emeritus who had long been a leader in demanding reform in college athletics.

Whole picture

Willingham stirred a hornet’s nest when she said her research of some athletes’ academic qualifications turned up many who could not read adequately and, in fact, one athlete who could not read at all.

Then she was attacked at the highest levels of the university’s administration in a way that seemed an overreaction at best and a calculated attempt to discredit her at worst.

Wainstein needs to look at everything, including athletes’ transcripts and their connections to the phony classes. And, yes, the university needs to release all of his findings, even if they prove embarrassing. How much of the findings she decides to make public will be a big test for Folt, who has spent her career at a smaller private institution without the obligations of public disclosure that UNC-Chapel Hill has.

The path to this point has been long and painful, and the university’s reaction to embarrassing disclosures has itself been disappointing. This is not about public relations. It is about an institutional scandal that has damaged the university’s reputation. When a school becomes, as UNC did in a national CNN story on corruption in college athletics, the lead example of problems, that university’s reputation is at serious risk. A serious man now will look at it.

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