At UNC, abdicating the obligations of leadership in scandal

UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt listens to UNC president Tom Ross as he responds to the report released by Ken Wainstein’s investigation into academic fraud at the University of North Carolina.
UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt listens to UNC president Tom Ross as he responds to the report released by Ken Wainstein’s investigation into academic fraud at the University of North Carolina. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Like many, I was distressed, though not surprised, that UNC-CH has spent north of $10 million on public relations consultants and lawyers to deal with our academic and athletic scandals. I suppose this is what the aspiration to “run the university like a business” looks like.

Over $5 million went to Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. The folks at Skadden, Arps got a couple million more. We paid $1.3 million to Bond, Schoeneck & King; another million to Baker, Tilly. Almost double that amount went to Edelman, a giant PR outfit, offering expertise on “corporate reputation management.” FleishmanHillard raked in almost $400,000. You’d think the Old Well had relocated to Madison Avenue.

High-dollar outside investigators were reportedly necessary because, after years of stonewalling and false assurance, no one would believe an analysis conducted by the administration. A campus public relations officer explained, enthusiastically, that the millions to Edelman were spent to “support our management of media relations, content creation and internal communication.” FleishmanHillard’s website boasts it is “the most complete communications agency in the world, capable of reaching any audience, with any message, through any channel.” Praise the Lord. The new Carolina Way revealed.

There are, I suppose, millions of things that could be said of this. I limit myself to two.

First, at the end of every story about UNC’s breathtaking expenditures, the same concluding assurance appears. “Officials say that none of these legal and public relations bills are paid for by tuition or state appropriations.” The money comes from the private UNC Foundation. Not to worry.

This is, at best, only half the story. Much money given to the university is designated for a specific purpose – to create scholarships for needy students, to build new classroom facilities, to support professorships in the arts, and the like.

The dollars used to pay PR flacks and branding specialists, on the other hand, must come from undesignated gifts. Surely no donor has established a fund to help the chancellor decide and articulate what the university stands for. I’m guessing it never before would have been thought necessary.

When we spend $10 million or $15 million on the nation’s most expensive lawyers and corporate consultants, we deploy funds that could have supported impoverished Carolina Covenant students, or increased skimpy graduate student stipends, or raised the salaries of maintenance workers. I’ve never heard the university admit this. So enough with the “it’s only private money” charade.

Second, when did we decide to routinely outsource the obligations of leadership? Chapel Hill has a very robust legion of well-provided for administrators. We have a chancellor and a provost. Each has a bountiful array of associates. They are supported by a hefty public relations team and a first-rate group of lawyers.

Still, these days, whenever we face a significant challenge, we assume the need to hire a bevy of the nation’s highest-paid consultants to teach us how to behave like a decent institution. Having abdicated the obligations of leadership, we seem to think wisdom, character and savvy can be purchased. It’s not working.

Our greatest chancellor, William B. Aycock, died a few months ago. Dealing with crises like the Dixie Classic and the Speaker Ban, Aycock saw his share of trouble. Still, he never considered hiring “the most complete communications agency in the world.”

Thinking of Aycock, it’s easy to envision two distinct approaches to leadership and problem solving. In the first, decision-makers sit around a huge table in South Building. There is a chancellor and her cadre of assistants. And then a provost and his sizable group. Add to that our internal public relations team. And our external PR posse. Then there are internal and external groups of lawyers. As I said, it’s a big table.

They work for days, or weeks, responding to a crisis. Eventually a decision is made, and the group produces a statement to be issued by the chancellor. The final product is so chockablock with doublespeak that faculty members jokingly circulate email translations for the bureaucratically unschooled.

In the other model, Aycock returns to his campus office late in the evening after having had dinner with his family. He has consulted with university officials throughout the day. Now he sits behind his desk, a small lamp providing illumination. He makes the toughest decisions. And with pen and yellow legal pad, he explains them to the university community and to the people of North Carolina.

The first model, of course, costs millions. The second, a relative pittance. But the cheap route would outperform the big boys every time.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.