Considering the dreadful way the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has handled a wide-ranging athletics-academic scandal of four years running, expectations for how the university would respond to the NCAA’s findings in its own investigation were low. This is a public institution that in the course of this humiliating scandal has obfuscated, rationalized and acted with arrogance in terms of its obligations to the public.
So here it is, then, for Chancellor Carol Folt, who holds all the responsibility for what happens now in response to the NCAA’s findings, which the university now has. Folt was not the chancellor when the scandal broke, essentially driving a chancellor, Holden Thorp, from the campus and an athletics director, Dick Baddour, into retirement.
But now Folt must open all the doors and windows and put her responsibility to the public first. If, instead, the university’s administration delays public release of the NCAA findings to remove information from the report in the name of “privacy rights” (the phrase the university has already used after receiving the NCAA’s report) and otherwise tries to soften the blow of these findings, it will be Folt who is responsible for the failure of a public university to act like one.
A report from Washington attorney Kenneth Wainstein, which cost $3 million, found appalling instances of phony classes with many athletes in them, an advising system steering athletes to those classes and a miserable failure in oversight. Now comes the NCAA, college athletics’ weak governing body and protector of a multibillion-dollar industry, with its own findings. Considering the penalties it has levied on other schools with much less serious accusations against them, the NCAA is going to be feeling the heat from its members to punish Chapel Hill for one of the worst athletic-academic scandals in the history of the organization.
Folt likely will have to go against the advice of some on her staff and in the corps of athletics boosters, who’ll be encouraging her to delay and release as little information as possible. But in 2011, the university was forthcoming quickly with an NCAA notice about football players who had gotten improper benefits from agents and help from a tutor.
UNC-Chapel Hill comes to this point with its reputation wounded and its credibility low. As this four-year saga unfolded, various university officials kept trying to explain and rationalize claims by people such as former academic counselor Mary Willingham, who told of athletes unqualified to do course work at a college level. She was blasted for her truth, and then Wainstein’s report confirmed much of what she said. In the end, the university reached a settlement with her, but one that did not include, as it should have, restoration of her job.
If the university delays a competent release of the NCAA findings, meaning one that is not “redacted” to death, then its credibility is going to suffer even more. The public simply isn’t going to buy a claim that half a report is enough. Doing that kind of thing will not put an end to this disgraceful episode in the university’s history. It will only prolong it.
Federal law protects the confidentiality of student academic records, but not the records of university employees. The privacy of university employee records can be waived under the state personnel law if disclosure is essential to maintaining the integrity of a department. Certainly it is essential now.
What is needed now is a chancellor, a leader, who will not be led by misguided advisers who want to keep the lid on the NCAA’s findings. Rather, Folt must respond in a way that shows she understands that this is the people’s university and that there is an overriding obligation to report to the people, even when much of that report is liable to be unpleasant and embarrassing.