John Drescher

UNC’s lawyer-up strategy might be working

UNC academic scandal explained

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill endured a multi-year NCAA investigation into a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.
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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill endured a multi-year NCAA investigation into a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.

A group of UNC-Chapel Hill loyalists gathered in January 2015 at a private dining room in the City Club on the 28th floor of the Wells Fargo building in downtown Raleigh.

The 30 lobbyists, most of whom had been educated in Chapel Hill, meet each year at the beginning of the legislative session to slap backs, eat well and pledge support for Carolina.

But this meeting was different. Joel Curran, UNC’s vice chancellor for communications, spoke to the alums. They wanted an update on how UNC was managing the scandal that centered around bogus, no-show classes in the African studies department and the high numbers of athletes in those classes.

“My message to them was we’re not backing away from explaining what we know happened and what we’re going to do about it,” Curran told me this week.

Many of the alums weren’t buying it. Several of them were frustrated with UNC’s approach and spoke forcefully.

The university was spending too much on lawyers, the lobbyists said. It had withheld information and its credibility had been damaged. It was obfuscating. It needed to tell the full truth in plain language, get it all out and move forward.

When the existence of the no-show classes was revealed in 2012, UNC had to choose one of two basic approaches to handling a scandal. Each approach has costs and benefits.

One approach is to relentlessly pursue the truth, reveal even the embarrassing details and throw yourself upon the mercy of the court, which in this case includes the NCAA, which governs college sports.

The risk is that in acknowledging the ugly details and in speaking plainly about them, the punishment could be severe.

Among the benefits to this approach are that it limits legal and public relations bills and it can speed the process. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the organization can gain credibility.

The risk is that in acknowledging the ugly details and in speaking plainly about them, the punishment could be severe.

UNC has had another strategy – to lawyer up, hire PR and NCAA consultants, portray itself in the best light possible, parse words, say the wrongdoing was limited to a few people and argue its case. Carolina has spent millions of dollars and worked aggressively to manage its risk.

“Irregular” classes

UNC has argued its case, even when that argument conflicts with other evidence.

UNC’s accreditation body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, chided UNC in late 2014 for maintaining “that the academic fraud was relegated to the unethical actions of two people.” The association also wrote that “UNC-Chapel Hill was not diligent in providing information to the (SACS) Committee during its review.”

In another example, UNC has maintained that students were not subject to a limit on independent studies until the 2006-07 academic year. That was relevant because that time frame narrowed the scope of the NCAA investigation.

But a 2003 faculty report shows that the limit on independent studies started before then, The News & Observer’s Dan Kane reported recently. Other evidence shows that the limit was in place since the early 1990s.

UNC has parsed its words carefully, especially when it comes to describing the classes at the heart of the scandal. The classes never met and were not supervised by a professor; a paper was required but often not read and grades were generous.

Former Gov. Jim Martin, who conducted one of several investigations into the classes, called them “phantom” classes. Holden Thorp, when he was chancellor, described the classes as “academic fraud.” So did the accreditation agency.

Since Carol Folt has been chancellor, UNC has described the classes as “irregular,” “aberrant” or “anomalous.” If Carolina described the classes as academic fraud to the NCAA, that could lead to an unethical conduct violation and harsh penalties.

One could argue that Folt, as CEO of the organization, has done what she needed to do to protect the interests of the university.

Curran said UNC was merely sticking to the language used by various investigators. He also said UNC had been open in dealing with the crisis; he said the university had posted the investigative report from former prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein and given updates about the scandal on its website. It also has posted all public information requests on a website.

Protecting UNC

One could argue that Folt, as CEO of the organization, has done what she needed to do to protect the interests of the university.

Wade Hargrove, a Raleigh lawyer who was chairman of the UNC Board of Trustees from 2011 to 2013, said UNC has had a difficult balance to strike.

“There is a fiduciary duty not to damage the university by using terms that could be misconstrued or twisted by those who want to exploit it for their own reasons,” Hargrove told me. “It’s a difficult line to walk. People of good judgment trying to do the right thing might disagree on how to resolve the internal conflicts.”

UNC’s strategy might be working. The NCAA’s initial Notice of Allegations named football and men’s basketball, the sports that bring in the most revenue. The amended allegations recently released do not mention those programs.

If Carolina succeeds in limiting its NCAA penalties, its leadership (and devoted sports fans) will be relieved.

But the university will have work to do in regaining the trust of people like the UNC grads who gave Curran an earful at the meeting last year. Carolina’s lawyer- and consultant-driven strategy has not helped its credibility and has delayed resolution of the four-year-old scandal. That’s the bargain UNC has made.

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, jdrescher@newsobserver.com, @john_drescher

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