The University of North Carolina takes justifiable pride in being the nation’s first public university, but these days a tendency toward arrogance and self-protection causes it to often ignore its obligations to that public.
The latest case of UNC sealing itself from public scrutiny is documented in disturbing detail in Thursday’s New York Times report on troubles with pediatric heart surgeries at North Carolina Children’s Hospital, part of UNC Heath Care. In June 2016 and 2017, pediatric cardiologists there grew concerned about the poor outcomes experienced by children, including babies, undergoing what should have been low-risk surgeries. The Times obtained secret recordings of meetings in which the cardiologists — who diagnose heart problems, but don’t do the surgery — aired their concerns. They felt something was wrong with the treatment process, especially on the surgery end. They also wondered if the hospital was taking on cases it wasn’t equipped to treat well. At one meeting, the chief of pediatric cardiology, Dr. Timothy Hoffman, summarized the situation: “It’s a nightmare right now. We are in crisis, and everyone is aware of that.”
Dr. Kevin Kelly, who led the children’s hospital until retiring last year, told the cardiologists who had misgivings about referring children for heart surgery at UNC: “Do what your conscience says.” But he added that a drop in pediatric heart surgeries could cost some of them their jobs. Kelly also warned that suspending pediatric surgeries could badly damage the hospital’s image.
Someone brought the troubling situation — and the troubling response — to the attention of The Times. What followed was stonewalling. Dr. Kelly did not respond to The Times’ repeated requests for interviews. The hospital would not discuss details about children’s cases even if the parents signed a waiver allowing it. Administrators dismissed the concerns as drummed up by “a dysfunctional group.” The hospital has not provided certain risk-adjusted mortality data on its pediatric heart surgery requested by The Times. The newspaper has sued UNC to obtain it.
This resistance, now with far more serious consequences, echoes UNC’s response to the recent academic-athletic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill. Instead of admitting and fully disclosing a problem with fake courses that helped keep athletes academically eligible, the university at its highest levels did the opposite. It denied or dragged its feet on The News & Observer’s requests for information, put the blame on two individuals in the African and Afro-American Studies Department, and employed public relations people and attorneys to deny the magnitude of the problem and any institutional responsibility.
The Children’s Hospital operates under UNC Health Care and is affiliated with the UNC School of Medicine. Its mission should uphold the ideal of public service represented by the nation’s first public university, whose iconic Old Well appears in UNC Health Care’s logo.
Dr. Bill Roper, now the interim president of the UNC system, led UNC Health Care during the troubles with pediatric heart surgery. Now there’s a question of whether he was part of the problem or can be part of the solution.
In all likelihood, it will take leaders outside of the self-serving ranks of UNC’s leadership to crack its culture of arrogant denial and bring it back to being a servant of the people. To do less puts too much at risk, including the hearts of children.