No Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

What happened at North Carolina State University? The chancellor, provost, and chairman of the board of trustees were all forced out because of circumstances surrounding the hiring and promotion of Mary Easley, the wife of the former governor. The usually placid halls of North Carolina’s flagship technical university became the place of a sordid soap opera of deceptions, cover-ups, sweetheart severance deals, and incriminating emails. Did N.C. State simply happen to hire a bunch of bad apples?

The answer to that question is no.

“One rarely encounters a venal person in higher education,” says Robert E. Martin. An emeritus professor at Centre College in Kentucky, Martin has spent more than thirty years in academia, including large state universities. “Theft is rare in the ivy halls,” he wrote recently in a paper about higher education. “Most people working in higher education are dedicated, sincere, and conscientious.”

Martin observed that people in higher education “are also human beings subject to normal human failings.” And when you place normal human failings in the world of the public university you may have the makings of a scandal—once an outsider starts taking a careful look.

Three ingredients—political pressure, an atmosphere of privilege and ease, and inadequate transparency—helped create the unsavory conditions at N. C. State. Let us examine each one.

Political Pressure:

The Pope Center’s senior writer, Jay Schalin, recently recounted many connections between the university system and the Democratic Party in North Carolina. Citing numerous examples, he concluded that “North Carolina’s Democratic Party is using the university system as a way to maintain influence outside of the electoral process.”

Those ties of influence underlie the initial hiring of Mary Easley in 2005. A number of emails have been made public indicating that when the governor told Chancellor Oblinger that his wife would like to teach at N.C. State rather than N.C. Central, Oblinger snapped to attention and quickly accommodated the first couple.

But there’s good reason for Oblinger’s compliance. A public research university like N.C. State depends heavily on state funds, and a governor has considerable influence over state appropriations. As a result, Mary Easley ended up being hired as executive-in-residence, with the job of managing a seminar series, at a salary of $80,000. Finding a way to do that was not so difficult in the heady days of 2005, when the state was growing and funds were ample.

Oblinger was a star fundraiser during his time atop N.C. State. The school has prospered, as evidenced by its growing Centennial Campus and its new veterinary school. By accommodating the Easleys, Oblinger and Nielsen may simply have been making sure that the funds would keep coming in.

Privilege and Entitlement:

The Raleigh News and Observer, whose reporting helped provoke the resignations, has published online a speech by former provost Larry Nielsen given before the N. C. State faculty in 2007.

Nielsen reminded the faculty that they belong to “one of the most respected and trusted professions in the world.” Faculty members work “in a truly benign administrative setting” and have “an incredible level of job security.” He illustrated this last point by noting that he and his wife did not have a six-month savings fund in case he lost his job (as recommended by a financial planner). Losing his job was virtually impossible, he said. And despite his forced resignation as provost, he still has a very good job as a professor.

Indeed, faculty life at N. C. State—and many other universities—looks cushy. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in the 2008-09 academic year, on average a full professor at N. C. State made $114,000 in salary, or $140,000 with benefits. This is for a nine-month salary (including a long Christmas break). Although many professors work hard on their obligations of teaching, research, and public service, it is not unusual for a full professor to teach one class a semester.

The buzz surrounding Nielsen’s resignation stemmed more from his generous severance package than his role in bringing in and promoting Easley. He will keep his provost’s salary of $298,700 for six months, without any obligations. When he returns to teaching, his pay will gradually decline; after three years he will earn “only” $156,000. As a professor he will teach one course.

Before this package was revealed, the News & Observer reported the university’s statement that Nielsen would keep his provost’s salary for just six months; after that, his pay would fall to $156,000. Although his actual severance package was more generous, the lesser arrangement made page one news because of the shock people felt at six months of doing seemingly nothing at high pay. Chancellor Oblinger said that such a provision is routinely written into many administrative contracts. Oblinger himself received a six-month leave of that sort at his salary of $420,000 when University President Erskine Bowles asked him to resign.

If such contracts are routine, it is probably because the life of an administrator is less satisfying than that of the professor described in Nielsen’s speech. An attractive parachute, piled on an attractive salary, may be necessary to get someone to move up.

Still, to most people, there is something galling about tremendous salaries continuing for those who have been forced to resign for misconduct. Ordinary people live in a world where they face serious penalties for ethical lapses.


In some ways, public universities are transparent. When formally asked, North Carolina public universities must reveal faculty and administrative salaries, supply course syllabi, and produce historical emails (such as the ones that skewered Chancellor Oblinger). The university’s general administration routinely reports to the Board of Governors in public meetings information such as freshman SAT scores and graduation rates. The federal Department of Education requires universities to submit financial information, which then becomes public.

There are problems with this transparency, however. For one thing, some of the figures are virtually meaningless. The Department of Education asks for “instructional costs,” for example, but there is no clear description of how to arrive at them. Comparisons are almost impossible.

More fundamentally, few people are demanding these figures, because few are aware that serious problems exist in academia. As Nielsen said in his speech, university faculty are widely trusted and respected—second only to clergy. Education itself is revered, and many alumni remember their college experience in the warm glow of nostalgia.

To the public, the university is composed of truth-seeking teachers and thinkers who eschew the self-serving goals of the outside world. Unfortunately, this false perception has allowed money, politics, and privilege to fester, hidden from view.

Luckily, someone did disturb one small grove of academe in North Carolina, and the ivory tower came crashing down, revealing a world of cronyism and privilege. While the major players are not evil, they did not rise above the system’s flaws. The question is whether the scandal at N.C. State is something unusual or, rather, a glimpse of the kind of behavior that is endemic around the country. I for one don’t see any reason to believe that it is unique.