Carol Folt willingly inherited a mess.
University leaders generally remain in the background when athletics are in the public eye. Unless things go really wrong, as was the case at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where ill-formulated intentions, lax oversight and thirst for athletic success created a noxious stew.
The trouble centered on a mere $75 million piece of a nearly $4 billion budgetary puzzle, an athletic realm encompassing at most 800 undergrads out of 18,000, as Folt is quick to point out. Many years of dubious classes and inappropriate manipulation to benefit athletes clearly undercut the school’s reputation and academic integrity and would bring the NCAA sniffing for the second time this decade.
Folt knew as she interviewed during the spring of 2013 to become UNC’s 11th chancellor the scandal had cost her predecessor his job, and it could define her tenure. “I was pretty open-eyed about what this was going to be,” Folt said in late July in her Chapel Hill office. “I knew quite a bit, but I think nobody knew what I was eventually able to uncover.
“It wouldn’t have changed my opinion about coming here, it really wouldn’t.”
Before Folt arrived on campus in July 2013, the environmental scientist resolved to dissect what had gone awry at UNC. “That need to really probe became very obvious to me,” she says. “I’m well aware that every time you probe there are consequences of that probing, but I couldn’t have been a chancellor if I thought people were telling me not to do something.”
Supported by system president Tom Ross and others, Folt within eight months of taking office commissioned Kenneth Wainstein, an attorney formerly with the FBI and Homeland Security, to investigate what had gone wrong. The findings released in October 2014 were damning and helped fuel a five-count NCAA Notice of Allegations (NOA) the university is poised to answer publicly later this month.
“I’m not going into ‘woe is me.’ I really think that the most important part of our position is that Carolina is taking full responsibility and it’s not looking to set itself up as a victim,” insists Folt, 63. “I think a lot of what happened here absolutely shouldn’t have happened and should have certainly been caught much sooner. That’s really the tragedy of this, is that it wasn’t identified as quickly as possible and completely halted.”
Folt isn’t ready to discuss the university’s response to the NCAA charges, or to speculate about possible punishments. A member of the NCAA Division I Board of Directors while at Dartmouth College, she characterizes college sports’ governing entity as an “institution under flux,” perhaps less predictable than usual as it reinvents its processes under intense criticism and scrutiny.
Nor does she concede, as has been widely reported, that football coach Larry Fedora, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, or anyone else at UNC reassured prospective student-athletes regarding the NCAA’s intentions.
“I don’t know what they really said, and I doubt that you’ve been sitting in with the students,” Folt cautions an interviewer. “I feel that very strongly. We get reported that a lot of things are said. Most of the time when I try to figure it out, they weren’t said in that tone or context.”
Instead, the chancellor stresses her confidence in the “high integrity” of UNC’s coaches and athletic programs, and by implication warns against subordinates presuming to know more than she does. “Myself, I am not making any statements about what the NCAA will or will not do because I don’t have any idea about that, and I don’t think anyone has said that.”
One thing is clear – despite Folt’s Ivy League background, the lifelong Ohio State fan arrived at North Carolina familiar with the place of a strong athletic program within an academic setting. “I had much more experience than probably would have seemed obvious,” she says after 30 years at Dartmouth, the last as acting president. “I think what I was actually bringing by coming from Dartmouth is the fact that in a leadership position there I had to do everything. I had direct experience.”
Folt doesn’t consider the gulf between the Ivys and the power conferences as great as it appears, either.
“For one thing, if you take out the revenue sports, the Ivy Leagues want to win every single NCAA Division I championship,” she says. “Ferociously. And sometimes they do. And they compete for the same athletes.”
A public school swimmer growing up in Akron, Ohio, Folt was faculty mentor for Dartmouth’s swim team and a member of the school’s faculty athletic oversight council.
“She was nothing but positive about the role of athletics on our campus,” recalls Big Green athletic director Harry Sheehy, who oversees 35 varsity sports. “She showed up at events on a regular basis. Was very positive about the student-athlete experience and the value that it added to the collegiate experience.”
Like most high-energy people, Folt is noted for her positive outlook. That apparently extends to her view of how UNC’s rehabilitative work will affect the NCAA’s ultimate verdict.
“My biggest issue right now is that we are treated fairly, that what Chapel Hill is held accountable for is what others have been or will be, that we are given a very fair and just process that does include the fact that we are doing and have done many reforms,” Folt says. “I don’t think you will ever find a university that has done as many reforms as we have done, or investigated itself in such a public way.”
Folt won’t share a preference, however hypothetical, between likely terms of NCAA punishment: incurring postseason and scholarship limitations, or forfeiting revenues, championships and banners won while improper academic benefits bolstered athletes’ eligibility.
Still, her comments on the topic are revealing. “I’m happy to deal with the parts, the troubles, what we can do to fix it,” she says. “But it’s harder to fix the pain for the people who did not cause it, don’t deserve it, and still get the teasing and the more substantial parts of that.”
Despite her robust defense of those currently at Carolina, the chancellor is not above lamenting “the opportunity cost” of her time spent handling UNC’s academic/athletic misadventure rather than focusing on other, weightier duties such as managing a research portfolio of nearly $1 billion. In that, she echoes many beleaguered university leaders, past and present.
Where she differs from more seasoned colleagues such as William Kerwan, former co-chair of the Knight Commission, is in her conviction she has a firm grip on the athletic enterprise.
“I just think that higher education presidents, governing boards and institutions have lost control of intercollegiate athletics and it’s, I fear, compromising the integrity of higher education, at least as it’s played in the top division,” Kerwan, the recently retired chancellor of the University System of Maryland, told Inside Higher Ed last month. “It is the one area of a university where presidents are not really in control.”
Folt, a relative novice grappling with big-time sports, admits she “is still learning.” Yet she flatly rejects Kerwin’s premise. “I think it’s really important to think that, in the end, if presidents say they aren’t in control, they aren’t the right president,” she responds. “I put through the Wainstein Report. It is in my hands to get those reforms in place.”
A promising start, to be sure. But that’s not the same as taming the lust for competitive success, pressures on athletes, and ceaseless thirst for revenues that helped to create UNC’s and other schools’ problems in the first place.