Can a university be so influential and respected in a community that its public image can withstand any kind of onslaught? It certainly appears so—at least in the minds of its students. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been the subject of controversies and multiple news reports since the start of the decade. Its athletics and academics have been called into question by the media, fans, and the NCAA, college athletics’ governing body.
Despite all the attention placed on the school, however, surveys and interviews of students suggest that the effects of the scandals on student opinion have been minimal.
It all started with a tweet—a 140-character message sent out by UNC football player Marvin Austin during a party at a Miami nightclub in the spring of 2010 that led to suspicions of improper benefits. In a matter of months, the NCAA investigated the university and levied heavy sanctions against it.
Since then, the school has been cursed with controversy after controversy. From those impermissible benefits, the university was subsequently accused of excessive tutoring, plagiarism, “no-show” classes, and, most recently, accepting illiterate athletes. The controversies have brought a deluge of news media attention and have made the athletic program a national punchline.
However, despite all of the public attention stemming from the allegations and controversies, UNC students harbor little ill will toward to the school for its unethical actions and subsequent reactions.
As a student starting my fourth and final year in less than a month, I have been in the middle of all of this since I arrived in Chapel Hill in 2011. I am embarrassed by what the school has done, but I ultimately feel that it has not affected my life in any major way.
I wanted to find out whether other students feel as I do, so I embarked on an investigation. Would students be vocal about their displeasure at what had happened? Am I too indifferent? I wanted to know if they feel that the school’s reputation was tarnished, both in their eyes and to those outside the community. Do potential students now turn toward other institutions? Will future employers look at students graduating from UNC as tainted or inadequately prepared? These are all questions that puzzled me as I was gathering information.
Using Facebook, messaging, and other forms of social media I surveyed UNC-Chapel Hill students, and 312 students responded to this question: “Do you think this will hurt the school’s reputation in the long run?” Sixty-five percent think the scandals will “somewhat hurt” the school’s reputation but only 11 percent think the scandals will “really hurt” it.
I also interviewed students. For example, UNC senior Zachy Girmay said that he felt that the scandals did not affect his education because he has a different major than the athletes who have been the subject of scrutiny.
Girmay started his education in the fall of 2011 so the school has been under a cloud of controversy during his entire academic career. “There’s a stigma toward athletics and athletes. I don’t see it as detrimental to my individual education. It doesn’t really affect what I’m doing,” he said. In Girmay’s eyes, his education is fine, but he is still ashamed it happened to the school he loves.
It is not just veteran students who are unmoved by the controversies. Incoming students admitted that the scandals had little impact in their decision to attend the school. First-year student Jonah Lossiah says the scandals had no effect. Fellow first-year student Jackie Balliot agrees with Lossiah, saying “[the scandals] had absolutely no effect on my decision to attend. I knew that these scandals would have no effect on my own education at UNC.” However, both Lossiah and Balliot agree that the school’s reputation has been hurt, at least in the short run.
Parents of new students appear to share the same views as their sons and daughters. Fred McCoy, a UNC alumnus and business executive whose daughter will attend UNC in the fall, says that the controversies had no impact on his daughter’s decision. Furthermore, he and his wife have confidence that the university will fully identify and correct the underlying issues. He, like the students, agrees that the short-term hit is embarrassing, but that unless the NCAA finds substantial additional findings, the long term impression will not be drastic.
After all the interviews an interesting thread became apparent. Girmay, Balliot, and Lossiah share the mindset of many of their fellow UNC students in feeling targeted almost to the point of unfairness. They are ambivalent about the scandals but say the ridicule that comes with them is especially irritating.
“I don’t even attend UNC yet and I hear ‘hey, isn’t that the one with the fake classes’ all the time, because that’s what they associate UNC as a whole with,” explains Balliot. As a fellow student, I agree that UNC has to make drastic changes and regain its focus in regard to academics, but when facing critics it is hard not to feel overwhelmed and, at times, defenseless.
UNC’s neighbors appear to be its harshest critics. Ryan Anderson, a senior at North Carolina State University, located just 35 miles from the UNC campus, says that in his opinion the reputation of the school is forever tarnished. Anderson thinks the school took advantage of student-athletes and undermined the trust between the school and the student. Obviously, the rivalry between the schools fuels some of his disdain for UNC, but that does not mean that his thoughts are not shared by others.
In a survey of 87 student respondents, none of whom are affiliated with UNC, I asked the same question that I asked of UNC students, “Do you think this will hurt the school’s reputation in the long run?” Twenty-three percent believe the controversies have really hurt the school compared to the 11 percent at UNC. When asked, “Do you believe UNC has done enough to fix its academic problem?” 77 percent think the school has not done enough.
Even statistical measures suggest that the scandals have not had a large impact. I reviewed application and enrollment figures for both UNC and the University of Virginia, a school of similar size and academic rigor. UNC has experienced approximately the same growth as UVa in applications and enrollment since 2009—with an increase of 8,108 applications and 9,211 applications for UNC and UVa respectively over that time. For the incoming class of 2018, UNC had 31,331 applications while UVa had 31,042. The differences are small enough that they do not seem to have been affected by an outside variable like the controversies.
Athletic recruitment does not seem affected greatly, either. Both the basketball and football teams have seen recruiting classes improve. The incoming 2014 basketball class is ranked third in the nation (16th in 2013) and the 2015 football class is 15th (32nd in 2014) according to ESPN.
The news coverage of the scandals will continue at UNC for the foreseeable future, especially now that the NCAA has reopened its investigation. Until its investigation and UNC’s own independent investigation end, UNC will remain under a microscope. But for the students, the investigations do not change anything because their opinions about UNC have already been made up.
Ironically, this upbeat assessment is not necessarily good news. If UNC does indeed have a sense of infallibility within the institution then there will be little incentive to change in the long run. Unfortunately, this complacency might cause history to repeat itself in the future.
(Editor’s note: The author thanks Rose-Helen Graham and Casey Reep for their research assistance.)