At UNC, a scandal of academics and poor governance, not athletics

For years we have been hearing about the “athletic” or “academic-athletic” scandal at UNC. Maybe I am missing something, but where was the athletic scandal? Were teams shaving points? Were tennis players intentionally making bad line calls? Were soccer players taking performance-enhancing drugs? Were athletes competing on the field who were academically ineligible?

No doubt, there has been a scandal at UNC. But what happened in Chapel Hill was an academic scandal. This is not just about semantics. How you characterize the problem dictates how you devise the solution.

Athletes were not the only ones enrolled in bogus AFAM classes. They might have been the intended primary beneficiary, but the scandal appears to have been germinated and incubated by the academic side of the university. Paper classes were the brainchild of “academicians” in the college of arts and sciences.

The irony is that now a vocal group of UNC faculty members is questioning whether big-time athletics can co-exist with a prominent academic research institution. The corruption of athletics is tainting the pure quest for knowledge, they contend.

The simple answer is yes they can co-exist, as they do at reputable institutions all across the country, if the academicians will run the academic program with integrity.

The breakdown at UNC was due to a lack of appropriate controls and accountability systems within the college of arts and sciences. The primary gestation period for this scandal occurred under the watch of a chancellor who was a musician. While universities need scholars in all areas, including music, music is probably not the optimal background to manage a complex $1.5 billion organization.

We have been putting people in charge of the most complicated, politically charged institutions in the country who are ill-prepared to take on such challenges. If we want to avoid a repeat, and if other schools across the country and in our own backyard that are subsidizing athletes’ grades (but have just not gotten caught yet) want to learn from UNC’s failures, they need to consider this reality.

It is undeniable that college athletics has become a major component of American universities. And, yes, athletics involves large sums of money – and money is a corrupting influence. But rather than eliminate athletics, why not put people in charge of these institutions who know how to manage today’s reality? That is a governance problem.

How do we put this sad chapter in UNC’s history behind us? The first question we need to ask is whether UNC has done anything to address this fatal flaw in governance. With the scandal in full view, there was no one in the UNC system better qualified to be named as vice chancellor and provost – the chief academic officer – at UNC-Chapel Hill than Jim Dean. Jim is a world-class expert in leadership, organizational change and strategic decision making. He ran an academic department that required significant management skills. To her credit, the first thing Chancellor Folt did when she set foot on UNC’s campus was to name Jim Dean as provost.

Many in the college of arts and sciences squirmed because Dr. Dean did not come from among their ranks. The fact that he was an expert in organizational control systems and accountability rather than romance languages made some faculty members uneasy. But Chancellor Folt had defined the problem correctly.

The second change that is required to improve the faulty governance that gave us this academic scandal is to have more people who understand complex organizations appointed to the UNC Boards of Governors and Trustees. And that is exactly what has happened in the past couple years following the election of a governor who had spent a career working in a complex organization. The UNC Board of Governors is too large to be highly functional, but at least the composition of its membership is improving.

It is important to characterize the scandal correctly as an academic problem. Perhaps the scholars in Chapel Hill who are screaming from the mountaintop that we need to purge our research universities of athletics should pause, take a deep breath and internalize an insight from that great scholar Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and they are us.” The best scholars don’t make the best administrators.

Michael Jacobs is CEO of Jacobs Capital and a professor at UNC, where he teaches MBA classes on corporate governance and business and government.