Probation is sad verdict for UNC-CH

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt hlynch@newsobserver.com

Attention is focused on what the NCAA will do to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to punish it for a loss of institutional control over its athletics programs. But while those sanctions will be the most dramatic news, another disciplinary measure announced Thursday may be the saddest.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the commission that accredits UNC-Chapel Hill, has given the university 12 months probation for failing to meet seven standards, including academic integrity, and a failure to monitor college sports.

“It’s the most serious sanction we have,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges.

Championship banners and coaches being in NCAA jeopardy are one thing. But when an accrediting agency finds that a university has failed to meet a standard of academic integrity, the university’s soul is at risk.

Nothing is more valuable to an institution of higher learning than its pursuit and dissemination of truth. That is why revelations that some of its classes were a sham – and what a sham, with 3,100 students taking fake classes for nearly two decades – are so devastating not only to how UNC-CH is perceived, but to what it is.

This kind of sanction is rare for a major university. Usually it applies to small, financially struggling schools that can’t meet standards. But in this matter, UNC-CH, despite its reputation, its accomplishments and its resources, managed to shrink itself to a point where the accrediting agency had concerns about its compliance with 18 separate accreditation standards.

The commission cited seven of those standards in its decision about probation: overall integrity, program content, control of intercollegiate athletics, academic support services, academic freedom, faculty role in governance and compliance with provisions in federal financial aid law.

In the aftermath of the scandal involving athletes and fake courses, nine university employees have resigned, been fired or been placed under disciplinary review. The university has adopted some 70 reforms in the past few years.

All that is appropriate, but reform must continue. The nation’s first public university and one of its best has been brought low by a blind devotion to sports. People within the university, either by intent, neglect or incompetence, traded the university’s honor for hollow victories.