Ned Barnett

Barnett: What endures at UNC-Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has never lacked for pride, and rightfully so. The nation’s first public university is also one of its best. It excels in medical research, its men’s basketball team has won five NCAA national championships and its alumni have enriched every corner of the state and beyond.

Yet now UNC-CH also seems deserving of another emotion: sympathy. The school on the hill is getting hammered from both sides. On one, it’s coping with a years-long academic-athletic scandal that has converted its reputation for competing with the highest integrity into a reputation for using phony courses to keep players eligible. The Carolina Way has become The Carolina Wayward.

On the other side, the university is being pummeled by the state legislature. Republicans who control the General Assembly have cut funding, forced tuition increases and appointed a Board of Governors that has ham-handedly fired the university system president and closed a center devoted to studying poverty because the center’s leader criticized state policies.

No doubt there’s more to come on both fronts. The NCAA could impose severe sanctions on the athletic program. Meanwhile, legislative leaders will continue to tighten funding and punish academic critics at a place they regard as padded with high-salaried administrators and as a hotbed of liberalism.

Roots of troubles

It’s enough to make one feel sorry for this grand institution even though UNC-CH brought much of its troubles on itself. It let athletics, particularly basketball, become central to its identity, and the athletic department became an operation that went unexamined and unchecked. The university grew fat during the boom times of higher education funding, its campus sprouted cranes as new buildings went up, salaries grew and spending soared. The “university of the people” became elite and, in the eyes of many, smug. A reckoning was due. Now it has arrived from two directions.

The humbling of UNC-CH may be welcomed by its critics and its rivals, but the schadenfreude should not be savored. Ultimately, the university is not about liberal Chapel Hill or outspoken professors or championship banners. It is about the state that created it and supported it and sees in its achievements its own. In the end, what hurts Carolina hurts North Carolina.

The university’s suffering has tested its character and revealed the good along with the bad. Out from under the athletic department’s skullduggery, the administration’s denials, the alumni’s defensiveness and the faculty’s lack of vigilance has come evidence of integrity and conscience. Administrators have been forced out, athletic academic advising has been moved under the provost and alumni, faculty and retired faculty have published statements condemning the athletic abuses and have defended academic freedom against the Board of Governors’ witch hunting. And there have been instances of personal courage as whistleblowers have stepped forward to assert and defend the university’s values.

UNC alumni and all who are discouraged would do well to take a journey back to a day when the university’s ambitions, its excellence and its value were unquestioned. That day was Oct. 12, 1993, Founders Day and the university’s bicentennial. The occasion was celebrated in Kenan Stadium and highlighted by a visit from President Bill Clinton.

It is impressive to see the video of famous alumni and leaders on stage – CBS journalist Charles Kuralt, UNC President Emeritus Bill Friday, former U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford – and to hear a salute to coach Dean Smith and UNC’s 1993 national championship. All of them are gone now, but Kuralt made the moment enduring with remarks that began with, “What is it that binds us to this place as to no other ...”

What echos loudest now was Kuralt’s praise of former university president Frank Porter Graham. He said Graham performed “a miracle” by fostering from 1930 to 1949 a university of high standards and lofty ideals in a state beset by poverty. Graham called the state to greatness, and it answered with an institution that towered over neighboring public universities and drew national admiration.

UNC as a moral center

Kuralt (UNC Class of 1955), said, “Here we found something in the air, a kind of generosity, a certain tolerance, a disposition toward freedom of action and inquiry that has made of Chapel Hill, for thousands of us, a moral center of the world. This was the atmosphere that Frank Porter Graham created and left behind him, the liberating and liberalizing air of Chapel Hill.”

Then Friday spoke about an earlier presidential visit by President John F. Kennedy on Founders Day 1961. A film of Kennedy speaking appeared on the stadium screen. JFK said, “North Carolina has long been identified with enlightened and progressive leaders and people, and I can think of no more important reason for that reputation than this university which year after year has sent educated men and women who have had a recognition of their public responsibilities as well as their private interests. This is a great institution with great traditions and with devoted alumni and with the support of the people of this state.”

Carolina is enduring tough times now, but beneath its troubles is a dedication to doing what is right and uplifting the state that supports it. Carolina will correct the balance between sports and academics and, through the strength of its traditions and a renewed commitment to its values, will outlast those who would diminish it.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.