These lines from a forgotten Gilbert & Sullivan operetta spring to mind as I contemplate UNC’s continuing argument with the NCAA over an athletic scandal now well into its second decade: “A paradox, a paradox – a most ingenious paradox!”
Unfortunately, a scandal isn’t an operetta – nothing so lighthearted; it is a gamble with the reputation of a great university. It is what happens when a troubled university places its fate in the hands of a legalistic bureaucracy.
The paradox is this: UNC, accused by the NCAA enforcement arm of corrupt athletic practices, now pleads innocent – on the astonishing ground that the corruption is academic, not athletic, and none of the NCAA’s business. In effect, UNC argues, the phony courses were designed by departmental figures, not coaches or the athletic director. Has there been a more disheartening confession of twisted priorities at Chapel Hill?
Do the UNC administrators who sit still for this nonsense grasp its lethal implications? The latest episode in the controversy is instructive. Professor Jay Smith, a specialist in French history, has written a book on the troubled relationship between learning and athletes. He designed, and once taught, a well-received course on that relationship but has now been ordered on obscure authority to cancel plans to teach it in the 2017 fall term. Someone higher up the ladder must have vetoed the course, but his superiors disclaim responsibility and hide within the bloated bureaucracy that now passes in Chapel Hill for an “administration.”
This patent violation of professorial discretion has drawn the notice of the North Carolina chapter of the American Association of University Professors, an academic-freedom watchdog. It has called for an explanation, and another dodgy reply is all too likely. A university that scoffs at the NCAA isn’t going to bother its head over the discontent of mere teachers. Does the AAUP think academic integrity is more important than games? Already a string of evasions has needlessly extended the UNC scandal until it is the chief subject of scornful journalism about UNC from every point of the compass.
But the worst of it, by any measure, is the abandonment of the intellectual honesty that is the essential coin of life and learning. Why do we read unflattering stories of errant scholars here and there who steal the work of their peers? Why does – or did – UNC boast an honor system, enforced by student courts? Because honesty and honor are core values for life as well as learning – certifying that the work a scholar represents as his own really is his own. Why was it customary in this writer’s day for UNC professors to leave the classroom after handing out quizzes and exams? Why, for example, did the late professor, Cecil Johnson, who taught American history, not only leave the classroom during tests but knock on the door before re-entering? As, perhaps, did others? Because this was an admirable teacher’s way of expressing his confidence that students were observing the code of honor and meant their written certifications on every test and paper that “I pledge, on my honor, that this is my own work.” Because the architects of the honor system, here and elsewhere, thought it essential to educate undergraduates in the value of personal integrity.
I recall being mildly shocked when a distinguished journalist of that day (Gerald Johnson, of the Baltimore Sun), in a marvelously erudite address to a gathering of English teachers, recalled his own surprise when a Wake Forest teacher of his commented that the development of character is more important than great scholarship. Live and learn.
The UNC apologists who persist in this fracas with the NCAA seem to have forgotten that priority. They seem not to realize that transparent evasions set a poisonous example for young people who should be absorbing sound values for later life and learning.
These anonymous figures and their disingenuous pleas are betraying an honorable tradition. Ingenious? More like catastrophic.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.