Why UNC-CH is not “The Good School”

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We welcome Seth Holtzman (Assistant Professor, Catawba College) as a guest writer/blogger at Paper Class Inc.

Some defenders of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill claim that “The Carolina Way” is alive and well in spite of the unfolding athletic/academic scandal there.  By “The Carolina Way” they could only mean that which leads a university to be and do as it should, i.e., its integrity: a framework of basic values, principles, dispositions and beliefs.  If UNC-CH’s integrity is intact, the school still merits our pride.  Are they correct?

People are finally realizing that too many institutions of higher education, including UNC-CH, lead a double life.  Those institutions do more or less what they should to educate some students, but they violate their integrity in disturbing ways to produce winning sports teams.  (Schools also violate their integrity for other reasons too, but UNC-CH was clearly after wins.)   We should never have ignored this double life, but surely it is intolerable when the violations of integrity come to affect institution’s basic functions, its core mission, its center, its heart.

Violations of integrity differ in degree.  Telling a serious lie harms one’s personal integrity some; lying chronically harms it immensely.  We sometimes harm our integrity in small ways that allow our integrity to reassert itself to guide us correctly.  Some people permanently harm or even destroy their integrity.  Then their integrity stops guiding them; their life is no longer “integrated” well.  So, the severity of integrity damage matters.  An institution might survive a “cancer” only on its periphery.  But if the cancer spreads, grievously wounding or destroying an institution’s integrity, it is doomed unless its integrity can be restored.

The failure of some institutions, due to integrity damage, would not be too deleterious to the society or culture.  Institutions of higher education, though, are essential to our body politic.  Be clear about the nature of a college or university: it is our culture’s only kind of institution whose guiding value is to discover, understand, transmit, speak, and apply the truth.  Its aim is not to earn profits, manipulate opinion, advance a narrow interest, or serve itself.   America is The Great Experiment, an attempt to have a free culture, a culture free to find and live by the truth.  Our institutions of higher education are a main source of cultural health.  They are not too big to fail; they are too important.  We must counter any danger to or damage to their integrity.

Some believe that UNC-CH has a cancer only on its periphery, that UNC-CH is essentially in good shape but just has a “mess” to clean up.  If you too think so, take a magic wand and try to clean it up.  Clean up the now thousands of fake courses (UNC-CH’s PR message repeats the misleading euphemism “irregular courses”), the faked grades, the forged professors’ signatures, the athletic eligibility issues, the “rogue” employees (the PR message blames only a few “rogues”), the one “rogue” department so far identified and other departments clearly implicated by the Wainstein Report appendix.  Fire administrators who covered up the “mess”.  Remove banners won with ineligible athletes; forfeit all tainted wins.  Penalize, mildly or harshly, the many sports involved in the scandal.  Make UNC-CH apologize to those who warned it over decades.  Impose a very large fine for some appropriately good purpose.  Ensure a majority of UNC System Board of Governors are no longer incestuous with UNC-CH.  Indeed, make any other changes of policy, personnel, and programs.  You have treated symptoms and doubtless done some good, but the underlying cancer would still live and spread, because the damage to the school’s integrity remains.  That diseased integrity will simply issue into future problems, scandals, “messes”.  For example, when personnel need to be replaced, those chosen to take their place are likely to be just as bad as the old.  When programs need to be cancelled, modified, or added, the people in charge will produce programs likely as bad as the old.  Not surprisingly, we have already seen recent examples of these kinds at UNC-CH.  You would turn out not to be a magician but rather like the little Dutch boy who plugged the dike’s holes but did not fix its structural weakness.

An institution of higher education whose integrity is healthy and expressed—call it “The Good School”–is a model of careful critical thinking, unflinching truth-seeking, and ingrained moral courage.  “The Good School” is and is intended to be an open model for the culture.  First, it aims always to be self-critical, turning its intense and sophisticated critical powers on not only disciplines but also its own structure, operations, decisions, values, history, and people.  It cares to critically assess any subject, including itself, in order to see the subject objectively.  It teaches students not only chemistry and history but also how to think critically about everything, even the very institution that they go to.  “The Good School” values, seeks and praises those inside or outside the institution who help it understand a subject, even if the subject is itself, even and maybe especially if that help reveals flaws.  Second, it seeks and speaks the truth in all areas; and it speaks the truth especially firmly to the powerful who find truth inconvenient.  Going beyond teaching and (in the case of a research university) research that advances all disciplines, “The Good School” seeks the truth even about itself, society, and its place in society.  If it seeks truth about disciplines but not about itself, it endangers efforts at truth even within disciplines; for, all truth is connected, and failure to care about and seek truth in any area harms the search for truth elsewhere.  Third, it upholds high moral standards and polices itself for moral lapses.  “The Good School” always seeks the good and, though it makes mistakes, never fully commits (for long) to the bad.  It is self-corrective, not needing outside correction by media, public, or courts.  Where it discovers good about itself, it strengthens any good relevant to its mission; and it corrects any bad it discovers about itself.

“The Good School” is beautiful, inspiring, creative, powerful, noble.  Poets pen odes to it deservedly.  An institution with this integrity, modeling this integrity for the culture, committed to educating students to have this integrity, justifies our talk of it as an alma mater, a “nourishing mother”.  What other kind of institution can reshape our integrity for the better, giving us a better identity and life, serving as our second or surrogate “mother”?  Religions speak only to those within their sacred traditions; “The Good School” has universal appeal.  “The Good School” merits our deep, abiding pride due to its integrity and its cultural influence.

For “The Carolina Way” to be consistent with “The Good School”, UNC-CH never would have created and fostered an athletic/academic scandal for almost 25 years.  Even after the scandal surfaced, those with oversight responsibility could have sought one comprehensive, impartial, independent investigation into the whole truth, however painful and sordid.  Then the school could have righted all the wrongs: to athletes, students, faculty, other schools, the culture and integrity of the institution, and the public.  Then and only then could UNC-CH “move on”, to use the vapid PR phrase typically uttered with forked tongue.

By contrast, UNC-CH has always denied the need for a full and impartial investigation, offering occasional fig leaves in the form of whitewashes.  How many deliberately partial “reports” and “investigations” have there now been, all instigated and mysteriously funded by UNC-CH (and thus whose impartiality and seriousness are questionable)?  Who knows the full scope and depths of the scandal?  We know only what little UNC-CH has grudgingly been forced to reveal due to public and media pressure, lawsuits and their threat, and an astonishingly few brave employees.  If nothing else about the scandal speaks volumes, at least note this: from the beginning UNC-CH chose to respond to the scandal—deliberately, expensively, systematically, and publically—not by seeking truth, much less the full truth, but by conning people with a PR campaign and limiting where possible its self-understanding and the public’s understanding–about a public institution, no less.

If its choice of PR response over truth-seeking response were not enough of a failure of integrity, UNC-CH has smeared would-be truth-tellers and cowed employees into silence by actions, deliberate inactions, and implied threats.  It has intentionally harmed some students directly, robbing them of a chance at an education, and harmed all students indirectly, failing to model the very integrity that they need to learn.  It has harmed faculty and staff by immoral tactics such as illegitimate firings, threats, bluster, bullying, and dismissive silence.  It has harmed the public by failing to serve as a model of integrity and instead modeling the opposite.  All the while, UNC-CH trades in systematic PR doubletalk.  It spouts empty talk about its transparency, while delaying media and public requests for relevant information, fighting in court to remain opaque, and challenging people for releasing information.  It spouts empty talk about its openness, while guarding its dirty laundry as if release would threaten national security, hiding behind false readings of federal laws such as FERPA and HIPAA.  It spouts empty talk about “moving on”, while intending only to avoid scrutiny and punishment.  It spouts empty talk about “reform” and “being a leader of reforms”, while the “70 reforms” it touts (labelling some of them “reforms” is offensive) do not begin to address the profound damage to the school’s integrity.

Objective people acknowledge that a scandal of this length and magnitude occurs only if much of an institution either knew or chose not to know.  Many people participated through willing cooperation, willful blindness, or negligent blindness, including students, staff, faculty, and administrators inside, as well as oversight officials, alumni, donors, journalists and politicians outside.  So many people have been unwilling or unable to notice and prosecute the violations of integrity that, instead of an institution having a scandal due to a “few rogues”, the true scandal is that the institution has itself “gone rogue”.

UNC-CH has chosen not to be self-critical, not to be truthful about itself and to itself, and not to be moral.  It has purposely damaged its own integrity so deeply that some wonder if it can be repaired.  How can people responsible for the institution, including leaders on campus and up through the BOT, BOG, and legislature, respond appropriately while they fail to grasp the problem and subscribe unashamed to the values, priorities, and patterns of reasoning that caused the problem?  If this level of institutional failure does not reflect on “The Carolina Way”, what possibly could?  The worst damage is to the institution’s heart, the whole University, its very integrity.   UNC-CH is not “The Good School”, and “The Carolina Way” is in shambles.

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