Leave it to Chancellor Carol Folt for the understatement of the year (so far), something not so easy to achieve in a year with so many contenders.
In her note to the Carolina community released as the devastating results of the Wainstein investigation filtered out, the chancellor acknowledged: “I expect the members of our community to experience a range of emotions about the report’s findings and our actions.”
Yes, maybe even the full range, several times each minute, many times each day, as the idea of just how much and for how long the public trust was violated reverberates.
I suppose the chancellor had to include in her message that the university is stronger for confronting its errors and we’re in a better place now. I guess other university leaders and loyalists felt the need to stress that the truth is out, actions are being taken and it’s now time to look forward. And I can understand that some even might want to say they are proud of the university for investigating itself so thoroughly.
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But really, that is all madness. Or blindness.
It’s the same disease, or maybe just the same symptom, that got us here. There’s nothing to be proud of, no heroes to point to. This is not a time for heroes because hero worship is yet another symptom.
The chancellor mentions soul searching. That’s possible, I’ve seen it on this campus – after we lost Eve Carson – but I don’t see it happening over the Wainstein report. There’s too much deflection out there already and a pervasive, practiced defensiveness that’s without even a whiff of contrition.
The biggest damage is far worse than anyone in the thick of it imagines. It is the widespread loss of faith among those beyond the confines of this little town. There are hundreds of thousands of graduates of the university who are heartbroken, more deeply cynical or both. And for good reason.
The chancellor’s message noted a single event does not define the university. But this was not a single event. It was an era of corruption – 18 graduating classes long – and it came at a time when the reputation of the school was held in high esteem.
The corruption and the failure to ferret it out stole the beautiful dream that a school could win and hold onto its integrity. We all know people who raised their kids using that integrity as an example.
What are they supposed to say now?
I was not a good student at Carolina, but learned enough to do what I love for a living. As a reporter here I met many people who were clear-eyed champions of what the university could be. I feel guilty for being thankful they aren’t around to see this. You know who I mean.
They were always soul-searching, always reflecting on how the university was falling short. That’s how this place got better.
And now, here we are, reputation dashed. Cut off at the knees with two decades of asterisks on the books. With all respect, chancellor, we are not stronger as a result of this investigation. Knowledgeable, yes. Wiser, we’ll see. But the position of the school to defend its interests has been weakened at the worst time.
This month, the Board of Governors month cut back on the Carolina Covenant, backsliding on a promise that in exchange for higher tuition, there would be greater financial aid. Next year, when the legislature reconvenes and a new budget is written, the knives will be out for higher education.
Just when the people of this state needs it to lead the fight, Carolina has let us down. Sorry if that thought depresses you, but I’m experiencing a range of emotions right now.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org