Retired faculty teach by example in response to UNC scandal

April 4, 2014 

It should have been a “Wow” moment for administrators of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When more than 30 retired faculty members, including some of the most prominent of the last half-century, speak together and sign their names to a manifesto, it is a significant event.

And that happened in Chapel Hill. After several years of scandal, from a football program run amok to a shameful lack of oversight in tolerating phony courses in the African studies department, these retired faculty pinpointed what they saw as a problem: The current faculty is not speaking out and asking tough questions of administrators.

The article published Thursday on the opposite page was to the point. It said in part, “The failure to confront these questions (about the exploitation of athletes and the academic scandal) suggests a faculty that has abdicated its responsibilities.”


The signers included a number of very distinguished professors, including William F. Leuchtenburg of history, Ruel Tyson of religion, Donald Boulton, a former dean, Henry Landsberger of sociology and John Shelton Reed.

The article also refers to “faculty passivity and fatalism.” And it advocates that faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences, where the phony courses existed (or maybe that should be, didn’t exist) take the lead on being heard.

No punches are pulled. The professors write, “Two chancellors have sought in their decisions and public statements to defend the reputation of the university or at least minimize the damage while turning their backs on the issues related to the integrity of UNC as an educational institution in the service of the state.”

Certainly that seemed to be the case with former Chancellor Holden Thorp, who departed for another university job as the scandal was prolonged. Carol Folt, the new chancellor, is a capable person who has worked hard to understand the university community, but she has never dealt with a problem of this magnitude -- phony classes, claims that athletes were steered to them by advisers, athletes now speaking out that they were told what to take and what their majors would be, a claim that many athletes couldn’t even read very well.

The danger for Folt, and the professors alluded to it, is in perceiving the crisis as some athletics boosters see it, namely as a public relations problem rather than a deeply troubling, very real embarrassment that has wounded a great university.

That was in evidence at a recent trustees’ meeting, when athletes were brought forth to talk about their good academic experiences. That public relations gesture missed the point. No one believes all the athletes on all the teams, or even a majority of them, are poor students or subject to exploitation. To try to imply that’s the case was a rather clumsy ploy.

A Washington attorney, Kenneth Wainstein, now takes the chore of a get-to-the-bottom investigation, not the first. He should talk to some of these retired professors. And let’s hope that current faculty members take the advice to speak out from their former colleagues. That is one way, albeit perhaps an uncomfortable one, they can serve their university.

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