Scandal reveals two cultures at Chapel Hill

Among the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill there are two quite different views of the university’s recent athletic/academic scandal. 

One powerful element of the faculty, apparently including the Faculty Athletics Committee, shares the view of the administration and trustees that the university has forthrightly addressed the misdeeds of those who created this mess and has ensured that nothing similar will happen again. As the then-chair of the faculty asserted in 2013, “we have implemented policies, procedures, and safeguards that [will allow] us to move forward in our unwavering commitment to excellence.”  

These faculty members are frustrated when what they see as trouble-making colleagues and unscrupulous journalists refuse to acknowledge what to them is an obvious truth. 

Another segment of the faculty, however, including the vocal Athletic Reform Group, believes that the university’s recent problems stem from fundamental contradictions that have not even been acknowledged, much less resolved.  

They have less tolerance than the first group for the compromises required to field top-ten teams in the “money sports” of football and men’s basketball, and believe that both local and national developments suggest that the situation is getting worse, not better. They see the current embarrassment as an opportunity to deal with these problems before they become irreversible. 

It may seem odd that mostly smart and mostly honest people can look at the same facts and arrive at such completely incompatible conclusions. I believe, however, that the two parties may be coming from different places, both intellectually and literally.  

Dr. Cynthia Schauer, an associate professor of chemistry, has recently solicited signatures from active and retired faculty for a statement that is a representative expression of the “move on” position. (It can be found here.) She has solicited signatures from active and retired faculty, and as I write it has attracted 135 of them.  

It is remarkable that only nine of those signers are from humanities departments. Over 60 percent are from the physical sciences and mathematics (30), medicine and other “health affairs” schools (27), and the business school (26). (Five of the others are from the Department of Exercise and Sports Science and the rest are from other professional schools, the arts, and social sciences.) 

Compare those figures to the affiliations of the 32 retired faculty who signed a letter last year that criticized the administration’s response. Not one was from the business school; only five were from the hard sciences and one from the School of Public Health, while fully half were from humanities departments (literature, languages, and especially history). The composition of the university’s Athletic Reform Group, which comprises mostly working faculty, is similarly skewed toward the humanities. 

True, the university has 3,600 currently employed faculty and hundreds more retired ones who remain active, so the vast majority have remained silent. There is no school or department in which anything near a majority of faculty signed either statement. Nevertheless, the imbalance is so large that it suggests an interesting possibility.  

In an influential lecture titled “The Two Cultures” the British novelist and scientist C. P. Snow emphasized differences in what scientists and humanists know, pointing out, for instance, that a humanist who doesn’t understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics is like a scientist who has never read Shakespeare. But there are also differences in how the two groups work.  

Advances in medicine and the hard sciences often require teamwork. The history of science is not devoid of conflict and individual genius—quite the contrary—but day-to-day progress is achieved by patient assault on the unknown, usually by a team of researchers. Cooperation is desirable and important (as in team sports).  

Humanists, on the other hand, believe that arguing and airing differences can be a path to understanding. They see debate and disagreement as what a university is for

As for the business school—well, most business enterprises reward team players and those who can organize and motivate them. It may be significant that faculty from the law and journalism schools are so far strikingly rare among the signers of Dr. Schauer’s statement. Like scholars in the humanities, journalists and lawyers believe in examining opposing views and weighing arguments, not putting them aside in order to move forward. 

My point is not that one of these approaches is superior to the other; each is useful in its place and for its purpose. But they do tend to be found in different disciplines. Dr. Schauer’s statement characterizes the actions of some outspoken faculty critics of the administration as “divisive and counterproductive” and castigates them for “seek(ing) out the media spotlight to rehash old issues as if they are ongoing problems.” Most of those critics are humanists. They might happily agree that they have been divisive, but from their point of view, what’s counterproductive is telling those you disagree with to shut up and get with the program. 

I’ll end with a personal note. I was one of the retired faculty members who wrote that letter. One faculty colleague accused those of us who signed it of wanting to “wash our dirty linen in public.” That is precisely what we wanted. In retrospect it would have been very smart to have hauled it out and washed it very conspicuously because it was eventually dragged out and displayed by others.  

Dr. Schauer’s statement implies that now everything has been revealed, justice has been done, and the future has been taken care of. If those three propositions are true, it may indeed be time to “move forward.” 

Many, however, both on the campus and off, think there’s dirty linen yet to be washed. Answering their questions might be embarrassing, even painful, but it would put an end to this business. Telling them that it’s time to stop asking certainly won’t.

(Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in Raleigh’s News & Observer on April 23, 2015.)