Luke DeCock

DeCock: UNC faculty silence has spoken volumes

Jan Boxill speaks during a Faculty Council meeting Friday, March 8, 2013, at UNC-Chapel Hill's Sonja Haynes Center for Black Culture and History.
Jan Boxill speaks during a Faculty Council meeting Friday, March 8, 2013, at UNC-Chapel Hill's Sonja Haynes Center for Black Culture and History.

In the almost three years since former chancellor Holden Thorp first admitted that academic fraud was part of the original football scandal at North Carolina, one of the most surprising developments has been the role the faculty has played.

Through it all, through the NCAA sanctions for the football program, through the stunning revelations that the Department of African and Afro-American Studies was a factory of no-show classes and grade changes benefiting a large number of athletes, through each embarrassing blow to the academic integrity of one of the nation’s great public universities, the faculty has been almost entirely absent.

Complicit, by collective silence. Complicit, in the case of Jan Boxill, by action.

The News & Observer’s Dan Kane discovered emails documenting Boxill’s role in removing key information from a draft report that highlighted connections between the athletic department and academic improprieties in the African studies department. It was a shocking example of how far the North Carolina faculty has gone in defense of athletics.

Boxill, the chairman of the faculty council, explicitly wanted to avoid arousing the interest of the NCAA. She also has ties to the athletic department, having served as an academic adviser and as a women’s basketball broadcaster.

Thorp had his own ties to athletics, although they were personal, not professional. At times, he seemed like a fan first, a steely-eyed administrator second. It took him months to come around to the obvious conclusion that Butch Davis had to go. He was for too long in denial that this sort of thing could happen at North Carolina.

He also commissioned the Martin Report, in all its inadequacy. Jim Martin, an honorable, respected, dignified man of distinguished service to the state of North Carolina, ended up the figurehead of a report that posed few legitimate questions and answered fewer, a whitewash.

It’s not hard to understand why some faculty may not have thought it worth speaking out. Many had confidence in Thorp, a longtime colleague, and taking a more aggressive public stance would have meant crossing him. (Thorp has since been replaced by former Dartmouth provost Carol Folt, who arrived on campus earlier this month.)

It was also easy to see this as compartmentalized, limited to athletics and the African studies department, not relevant to the university at large. The Boxill emails may change that, once professors and students start returning to campus next month.

So far only a few lone voices have spoken, most notably history professor Jay Smith, who wrote an op-ed column for the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper in January decrying the lack of interest on the part of his colleagues. “There have been no demonstrations, no petitions, no teach-ins and few public comments,” Smith wrote.

Speaking at a forum on the future of intercollegiate athletics in Chapel Hill last year, public policy professor Hodding Carter III lamented exactly this kind of inaction.

“As far as I can see, on one campus after another, the silence of the faculty is very much the silence of the lambs,” Carter said, “allowing the slaughter of the integrity of the institutions they serve to go forward.”

The late Bill Friday was on the stage that night, a great man who cared deeply about both the University of North Carolina and the future of college athletics. He championed the idea to put control of college sports in the hands of university presidents, thinking academia was up to the challenge of overseeing athletics.

Perhaps the disclosure of Boxill’s role will serve as a catalyst for more decisive action on the part of her colleagues, because North Carolina is making a mockery of Friday’s dream. That’s no way to honor the legacy of a man who deserves better, or a school that once stood for something more.

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