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At UNC-Chapel Hill, the story is not yet complete

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comMarch 5, 2014 

Said the True Blue alum of UNC-Chapel Hill: “No one cares about the so-called scandals any more. People are tired of it. Why do you keep writing about it?”

He spoke, of course, of the show that at times seems like it’s played longer than “Cats” on Broadway. A football coach is brought in by boosters eager to bring a national championship to Chapel Hill. Players are found to have connections with agents. An academic department is loaded with phony courses populated with a high percentage of athletes. The coach is fired. A chancellor departs.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill happens to be my alma mater. Because of the university’s journalism school (I was in history myself), it also has been the alma mater of a number of colleagues, a large number, over the 40 years I’ve been in the business at three newspapers.

The claim on the part of some of the True Blue, then, that The News & Observer is “out to get” UNC-Chapel Hill is just not so. With so many alums in this region and state who read The N&O, what in the world would be the point of that? Stories, and editorials, that cause the subjects to become angry, to see themselves as targets, always draw that “out-to-get” reaction. I don’t know anyone in this business who claims to be perfect, but conspiracy? No.

In this case, N&O staff writer Dan Kane has covered the news with exhaustive investigation and detail, and he’s written a lot about the problems in the university’s athletics program and in a shocking academic scandal. One of the latest stories has concerned a dispute between a former academic adviser in the complex that deals with athletes who says some of them couldn’t read well and weren’t ready for college work. Another adviser recently begged to differ.

Some think the university just needed to “manage” the story better. But the story didn’t need managing. It needed telling.

Universities are rather cloistered places sometimes, and they don’t handle crisis or criticism very well. And presidents and chancellors just aren’t comfortable with opening the books on public records even when the institution in question is a public one. Human nature, perhaps.

Credit is due Carol Folt, the new chancellor at Chapel Hill, for acknowledging that the university had to accept ownership of this crisis. It was a stand-up and brave gesture. Her predecessors have been honorable people, all of them. But like many presidents and chancellors who inherit “big time” sports programs, they tried to make the argument to themselves and alums that it’s possible to be Alabama on the football field and Harvard in the classroom. It’s happened, but not very often.

So we can hope that the hiring of Kenneth Wainstein, the blue-chip Washington lawyer and former Justice Department bigwig who seems to have a “get to the bottom of it once and for all” mandate from Folt and UNC system President Tom Ross, will bring some tough but productive choices for the university as to priorities and standards for the future. And let’s hope the university is smart enough to fully disclose Wainstein’s findings to all the citizens of the state, who after all own the university.

Are people tired of the story? Yes they are. Should the story be forgotten? No, it should not. This isn’t about public relations. It’s about a very good university wherein administrators – under pressure from big contributors and believing that athletic success somehow enhanced academics – let the athletics program run itself. And they got burned for it.

They weren’t alone, by any means. There have been a number of prominent schools that have had to face up to embarrassing scandals when athletes got privileges beyond reason. To be sure, giving academic help (extra tutoring, etc.) to athletes has not been a secret. Why should it be? They’re working many hours a week and it’s easy to understand why they would need assistance. But there is a line that must not be crossed. When it is, universities have to do something about it.

I had classes with basketball and football players in Chapel Hill in the 1970s. Most showed up and did the work. Some professors were friendlier than others to players, but I suspect some were tougher on them, too.

It’s likely that Carolina has worked harder at playing it straight in terms of athletics and academics than other universities. But when things go wrong, getting the story out, not sitting on it or trying to manipulate it, is the only credible choice.

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

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