University of Maryland President Wallace Loh said during an on-campus meeting last week that he “would think” that the NCAA investigation into UNC-Chapel Hill would ultimately lead to the NCAA levying the so-called “death penalty” against the university.
Loh made the comments during a University of Maryland senate meeting last Thursday. An audio file of a portion of the meeting, which was open to the public, was sent on Monday to The News & Observer. Loh’s commentary about UNC came during a question-and-answer portion of the meeting.
An individual who identified himself as a member of the University of Maryland faculty asked Loh how he could be certain that the university is “protected from the corrupting influence of athletics.” In response, Loh made an unprompted reference to UNC.
“As president I sit over a number of dormant volcanoes,” Loh said. “One of them is an athletic scandal. It blows up, it blows up the university, its reputation, it blows up the president.
“For the things that happened in North Carolina, it’s abysmal. I would think that this would lead to the implementation of the death penalty by the NCAA. But I’m not in charge of that.”
Few college presidents and athletic directors, if any, have so openly called for significant sanctions at UNC, which has been under an NCAA investigation since June 2014. That’s when the NCAA Enforcement Staff reopened an investigation it closed, for the first time, in 2012.
The current investigation has focused on how bogus African Studies courses, ones that never met and featured little to no instruction and required only a paper in exchange for unusually high grades, benefited athletes over a range of years. UNC in December received a third Notice of Allegations in the case.
The university was due to respond to that NOA in March, but the NCAA granted UNC an extension. It is unclear when UNC’s response is due. If the case follows a normal timeline from this point – and it hasn’t followed such a timeline in the past three years – then UNC is still months away from an appearance before the NCAA Committee on Infractions, which eventually will decide penalties.
Loh’s recent usage of “death penalty” is a reference to the harshest of NCAA sanctions, particularly the banishment of a team from competition for at least one season. The NCAA’s most infamous “death penalty” case involved the SMU football team, which was suspended from competing during the 1987 season after years of serious NCAA violations, including the payment of players.
The NCAA hasn’t levied the death penalty against a Division I school since then, and it is now seen as an unlikely outcome in any infractions case, regardless of the severity of violations. Brian Ullmann, a University of Maryland spokesperson, said in a statment that Loh’s comments about UNC were “not a reflection of personal beliefs about the university or its leadership.”
“It is an example of the challenges that leaders in academia face as universities continue to grapple with balancing athletics with our overarching mission of research and scholarship,” Ullmann said. “It's clear that he is not advocating for any one outcome and trusts that all involved are working toward the same goal of rooting out wrongdoing wherever we see it on an academic campus.”
Meanwhile, Joel Curran, the Vice Chancellor of Communications at UNC, said UNC officials were “surprised” by Loh’s commentary.
“We were surprised that a sitting university president with no direct knowledge of our case would choose to offer such uninformed and highly speculative opinions,” Curran wrote in an email. “Clearly, Dr. Loh misunderstands the facts of the case, and how NCAA bylaws apply to those facts. We are now preparing our response to a third Notice of Allegations and suggest he read it fully once it has been submitted to the NCAA and made public.”