A Sickness in the Soul

I recently spoke with a philosophy professor at an Ivy League university. We discussed some issues in higher education, including such depressing topics as the increasing rejection of long-accepted standards of objectivity and a growing contempt for traditional perspectives.

The deep sense of privilege and arrogance demonstrated by many in academia also came up. The professor, who is relatively young and deeply religious, paused and said solemnly, “There is a sickness in the soul of academia.”

It is increasingly apparent that there is indeed a sickness in the soul of the University of North Carolina system.

How else does one explain a situation that occurred in 2012 at UNC-Wilmington? The English department hired an assistant professor, Alessandro Porco, whose literary output consisted of obscene odes to pornographic actresses and infantile rhyming patterns barely worthy of an eight-year-old. It appears that he was selected over 100 other applicants, not in spite of his disturbing and anti-intellectual tendencies, but because of them. If that is not sickness, then what, pray tell, is?

And that hiring is hardly an isolated case. Except for a few watchdogs such as the Pope Center, his hiring would have passed unnoticed; it is likely that many other equally egregious incidents pass as normal business.

If we tally up the events of recent years in North Carolina, it seems that some major scandal at a UNC school is always in the news. Some of the major ones include:

  • The massive scandal—really, many scandals—at UNC-Chapel Hill that first surfaced in the athletic department in the summer of 2010. The administration continues to circle the wagons after all this time, even though it has cost the former chancellor, athletic director, head football coach, and an academic department head their jobs and threatens to permanently destroy the school’s credibility.
  • The Mary Easley affair at North Carolina State, in which the administration hired Governor Mike Easley’s wife as a political favor and then tried to cover up the trail that led to illegal collusion between the governor’s office and the university. The school’s chancellor and provost, as well as Mary Easley, were forced out of their positions.
  • Two high-ranking administrators at North Carolina Central University, including the provost, were indicted for embezzlement after they diverted over $1 million from a program intended to study the “achievement gap” between minority K-12 students and white students.

At times, the university system—an institution created for high and noble purposes—seems to behave with contempt for its constituents, as if not subject to accepted moral and ethical practices.

Especially disconcerting has been the frequent and persistent withholding of public information. The News and Observer has been forced to sue UNC-Chapel Hill on several occasions for information that is legislatively deemed to be public records. Other organizations in need of public information are too small to be able to take the system to court, and cannot access what rightfully belongs to the public.

In another example, when a UNC-Chapel student tried to get line-item budget information about his school’s Honors Program, he was rebuffed and misdirected for roughly eight months. After he told of his failed attempt in this op-ed, he received a massive “dump” of so much information from which it was impossible to make sense.

Employees inside the system who work for reform are harshly treated by their superiors. At Chapel Hill, the administration attacked an academic advisor and reading tutor—who had worked closely with many student-athletes—for revealing that the school was admitting athletes in the revenue-producing sports who could not possibly perform at the level necessary to maintain academic eligibility.

After public outcry, administration officials backed off and said they would review the advisor’s report. That was over two months ago—checking the validity of her study should have taken no more than a few weeks, raising a question whether by “review” they meant “bury.”

At Winston-Salem State, a staff member was fired for asking too many questions about the school’s unseemly methods of boosting graduation and retention rates. These included school-sanctioned cheating in groups and moving failing students into special sections where they were given high marks. Consequently, a Winston-Salem professor who corroborated the staff member’s story was suspended for a minor questionable detail on her curriculum vitae. The detail—calling her doctoral dissertation a book—turned out to be an acceptable practice at Louisiana State University where she earned her Ph.D.

There is ample evidence that many within the UNC system clearly do not feel accountable to taxpayers; rather, the system is perceived as above the people, not subject to them. When a government agency loses its sense of accountability to taxpayers, it stands in opposition to the taxpayers. And that appears to be the case here; the university system often works against the interests of the state. The cure for this sickness will not come from within, but from those outside the system’s administration.

So how can the system be healed? The first step is for the state’s leaders and citizens to recognize the problem. The “old boy” system of support for state universities must end; school loyalties must change from blind allegiance—my school right or wrong—to a spirit of reform. Improper activities and corruption, whether financial or academic or athletic, must be exposed and publicized. The pursuit of truth—one of the main reasons for which universities exist—must replace the current culture of self-preservation and politicization, no matter how many oxen are gored and careers are dashed. There is no alternative to openness and objectivity other than corruption.

The way to start is by ending the system’s tight control of information. If there is any hope for the UNC system, it will be through greater transparency and awareness. Knowing this, the system fights hard to maintain control of its information, even throwing up illegal obstacles when exposure threatens a continuation of the status quo.

There is no shortage of ideas of how to wrest the control of information away. Some have already made some headway. One valuable aid to transparency, requiring that all department-level budgetary information be publicly posted on the web, was removed from the final version of the legislative budget last year at the 11th hour. In another, a suggestion to place all course syllabi on the web has already been put in place at Fayetteville State and at the Belk Business School at UNC-Charlotte.

Other solutions have not made as much progress, but offer equal promise. There is a great need to rewrite the state’s statutes on access to public information, as they are currently excessively restrictive. Along with syllabi, professors’ curricula vitae need to be publicly posted as well: we need to know what ideas are being taught in our schools.

One of the most powerful ideas for giving the control of information back to the people is for the Board of Governors to hire its own executive director, answerable only to the Board. Right now, the Governors, who are the final word in university governance, are dependent upon the system’s General Administration for information; it is only natural that the administration use that control for its own self-interest.

Another reason for an independent executive director of the BOG is to offer an ear to potential whistle-blowers who are likely to receive poor treatment on their own campuses, as has been the case at both UNC-Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem State. Additionally, a BOG director could serve as an ombudsman to make sure that campuses process public records requests in a timely and organized fashion.

But it is not just up to those in positions of power—legislators, trustees, and governors—to effect change. Citizens must do their part as well. One promising tactic is for alumni and other donors to stop giving money without contractually stipulating the purpose for which it is intended; otherwise, administrators may use their money for acts at cross-purposes with the donors’ beliefs, such as hiring another Porco. There are also a growing number of conservative campus organizations, reform groups, watchdogs, and small, alternative institutions that will make better use of a donation than a UNC administrator will.

It also may be time for concerned alumni to start their own organizations rather than continue to support their schools’ official alumni groups, as the official groups tend to be little more than cheerleaders for their schools’ administrations.

And everybody, particularly the parents of students, should ask more from their schools. Students, because of their youth and inexperience, do not always know what a proper education should be; it is therefore up to those paying the bill to monitor what is taught.

If it seems that we are asking a lot of our universities, it is because they exist for better purposes than they sometimes serve. And academics are highly rewarded; six-figure salaries abound. They are given academic freedom and tenure so that they can be the final arbiters of objective inquiry—we must hold them to that standard. This sickness in the Ivory Tower must be acknowledged, fought, and defeated, or it will continue to spread and poison our society.