UNC academic scandal, boiling for years, no closer to ‘crisis ended’


Last week, amid concerns about Ebola in America, another disease ran rampant in a major U.S. institution: the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

And, like Ebola, this crisis was years in the making and is no closer to ending.

That is, 18 years of no-show academic courses helped more than 3,100 students, half of them athletes, remain eligible for NCAA competition and go on to graduate.

Even SNL took a shot — a clear indication your crisis management plan didn’t go so well.

A crisis is measured by its duration, not its day-to-day intensity.

Mike Bowen, a business professor at the University of South Florida and president of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an alliance of faculty senates seeking long-term reform in college athletics, told The Raleigh News & Observer this is one of the worst college scandals of them all.

“What North Carolina is going through is a university’s worst nightmare – their very integrity is being questioned,” Bowen said. “The system needs to be fixed. We are just diddling on the edges of this.”

The Washington Post reported that the findings by attorney Kenneth Wainstein determined there were 188 such no-show courses between 1999 and 2011, in which 47.4 percent of the enrolments in these “paper classes” were student-athletes, who generally comprise 4 percent of the student population.

For the first time, the Daily Tarheel recounted, Chancellor Carol Folt acknowledged the department of athletics’ involvement in the scandal that led to the resignation of beloved former Chancellor Holden Thorp and, eventually, criminal charges.

Even though this report was the third the university produced, there apparently remains no effective crisis management plan in place and top officials are ducking and juking. The student newspaper:

Bubba Cunningham sat uncomfortably on stage during Wednesday’s press conference. The current director of athletics arrived at UNC in 2011 — the year Wainstein’s report said many of the improprieties were coming to an end.

With every question, Cunningham quietly gave a quick response.

Would he comment on the timeline of the NCAA’s ongoing investigation and whether Wainstein’s revelations would impact that investigation?

“Trying to speculate on the end would be inappropriate at this time,” Cunningham said. “I have no idea how long it will take.”

In interviews with basketball coach Roy Williams, who brought UNC two national championships in 2005 and 2009, and basketball counselor Wayne Walden, Wainstein’s team found that Walden knew about the paper classes and that [administrator Deborah] Crowder was grading the assignments, despite the fact that she had no training as a professor.

Now Walden was Williams’ main guy. The two had come to UNC with now-retired director of basketball operations Joe Holladay from the University of Kansas in 2003. Walden promised Wainstein that Williams had no idea his players were enrolled in classes that never met and were being graded by staff members with no background in academia. During the press conference, Wainstein said “his gut” told him to trust Walden’s claims.

Holt just took the chancellor’s job a year ago, after serving at Dartmouth College for 30 years in various capacities, including acting president. She had to know about the academic crisis, which goes back years to a whistleblower. But her team seems no more equipped to deal with it transparently or effectively.

This is another example of an institution with vast resources not understanding that a crisis is measured by its duration, not how many headlines it generates at any one time.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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