Desperately Seeking Principled Leadership

UNC-Chapel Hill’s football scandal is starting to resemble another recent unsettling episode in the University of North Carolina system: the Mary Easley affair, which toppled the North Carolina State administration in 2009 and left a stain on the system presidency of Erskine Bowles.

The two scandals started differently—one with a governor pressing NC State’s administration for a sinecure for his wife, the other with an out-of-control football program. But the subsequent investigations have contained many common elements: disgraced employees walking away with sweetheart contracts, administrative resistance and denial, public information requests for email evidence, loyal fall guys (or in Chapel Hill’s case, fall gal), a persistent media refusing to be stone-walled, and a long chain of events before the truth becomes fully known.

Most of all, these two cases show top university administrators who are slow to react when problems come to light, and stand behind employees long after the rest of us have realized they must go.

Furthermore, UNC-Chapel Hill’s scandal highlights the need for a new type of university administrator, one with street smarts who seeks to reform higher education rather than the sheltered academics with grand schemes for expansion and politicization that predominate in academia today. Higher education has had a long run of rapid growth dating back to World War II, and it has undergone drastic changes due to fads and political pressure along the way. The current era calls for leaders atop our universities who are fully aware of the negative affects of that growth and change before they take the job, not those who seem out of sorts when the inevitable problems arise.

The exposure of fraudulent courses in Julius Nyang’oro’s African and African-American (AFAM) Studies department was not shocking to savvy observers, as it was to UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp (at least publicly). College athletic scandals happen so frequently that it’s naïve not to assume that many major universities drop standards for athletes. 

Thorp, most of all, should have anticipated these things: he was Nyang’oro’s boss as both dean and chancellor. Instead, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, when informed a year ago that an investigation of plagiarizing by a UNC football player pointed to a class by Nyang’oro, “Thorp said he did not intend to question the professor about it and said the matter was resolved.”

University administrators also don’t seem to grasp the outrage the rest of us feel when the public trust has been betrayed. In the Easley case, instead of voicing indignation about being lied to, Bowles supported disgraced NC State chancellor James Oblinger to the very end and continued to call him his “good friend” even after Oblinger was forced to step down. At Chapel Hill, a News & Observer article said that Thorp “continued to stand behind Nyang’oro” and called him “a great colleague,” even after much of the AFAM corruption was known.

Thorp recently commented that “throughout this ordeal, we have asked hard questions, and we have found answers that are humiliating and painful for a university built on a commitment to academic excellence.” But his words belie his failure to get out in front of the issue for the last two years. Rather, the media have led the charge, with UNC instead setting up roadblocks most of the way. 

The latest example of UNC’s intransigence happened recently when the school provided public records to the News & Observer apparently so “redacted” (with supposedly sensitive information blacked out) that they were unreadable, as if they were a jailed dissident’s letter to the West from the old Soviet Union.

Much of the problem arises from a false sense of privilege adopted by many university officials and professors, that the rules the rest of us live by don’t apply in the Ivory Tower. Most people exist in a state of strict accountability: if we get caught doing something wrong on the job, or if our employees behave unethically on our watch, we suffer. We lose our jobs with no big safety net. And we want the same for our public officials, whether they are politicians or administrators at our public universities.

Yet that is often not the case in academia. Academics have been entrusted to safeguard the nation’s intellectual treasures and to pass on those treasures to future leaders. Because these activities seem especially noble to the rest of us, academics have been afforded a special status. They have been given extra protection that the rest of the population lacks—academic freedom—so that they may pursue the truth, no matter where it lies.

Because of its special status, protection, and assumption of nobility, there has long been a tendency to hold academia less accountable when it fails to live up to expectations. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that Nyang’oro’s AFAM department was able to operate beyond acceptable boundaries for so long. And that UNC’s leadership initially circled the wagons for his protection.

A faculty committee report looking into the scandal found problems that go beyond a single professor, department, or athletic program. One of those problems is that there are “no set or clear criteria for appointing or reappointing department chairs.” Other problems uncovered by the committee, which was specifically focused on academic problems relating to the athletic department, such as poor communication and transparency, could easily be generalized to include the entire university.

These are the real difficulties that chancellors, provosts, and deans should spend their time addressing. Thorp is well-liked and reputed to be a brilliant scientist, yet his head may be too much in the clouds to run UNC-Chapel Hill effectively. In his book, Engines of Innovation (jointly written with Buck Goldstein) he envisions universities solving all the world’s biggest problems, but he does not seem to intuitively grasp the seriousness of problems at his own university.

Even when Thorp does the right thing, it still seems unsatisfying. Either football coach Butch Davis was guilty of an egregious offense and deserved to be fired with a voided contract, or he should still be coach. It seems irrational that he lost his job due to academic cheating and recruiting difficulties but still gets to collect a $2.5 million contract buyout. Likewise, or worse, Thorp decided it was more “expedient” to permit Nyang’oro to retire on the state’s dime after he mocked the public trust.

It was time to make a bold statement, rather than to be expedient. How much more of a leader Thorp would have appeared had he declared, to both Davis and Nyang’oro, “How dare you sully my university? Your unethical behavior voids your contract, and I will fight with my last breath to make certain you don’t get another dime!” Instead, he missed a wonderful opportunity to both set the university right and to inspire an ethos of upright behavior, for the sake of potentially saving a few dollars in the short run.

The time has come for a new breed of college administrators, who not only recognize problems when they appear, but who seek out opportunities to reform, educate, and inspire. It is time for principled stands over political expediency, and firm, hands-on management over risky expansionist dreams. It almost always is.