CHAPEL HILL – At a meeting of the Board of Trustees Thursday, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said the University accepts responsibility for past misdeeds regarding academic oversight.
But she also said she supports UNC’s current course of action to ensure those misdeeds don’t recur in the future.
“We’re saying very directly that we understand it, we accept responsibility for it, (but) at the same time, we’re putting in immense effort to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she told reporters.
Among other things, “it” refers to the anomalous and phony classes offered during a period of more than a decade in the African and Afro-American Studies Department (AFAM). Former department chair Julius Nyang’oro has already been indicted in connection with those classes; District Attorney Jim Woodall says more indictments may be yet to come.
It’s still an open question whether those courses were created solely to provide athletes with an easy grade to maintain their eligibility. UNC has avoided additional NCAA sanctions because there’s no direct evidence of that being the case—but Folt said either way, the problem was larger than that.
“Although we don’t have evidence that the anomalous courses were initiated in order to benefit athletes, close to half who did enroll were student-athletes,” she said. “(But) many students were involved in those courses, (and) all of those students who were involved in those courses deserved better from us.”
Afterwards, speaking to reporters, Folt went even further.
“Courses that have no faculty oversight – that’s a real betrayal of our commitment to our students,” she said.
And she said that betrayal was the result of a long-term “failure in academic oversight.”
“This too was wrong,” she said, “and it has undermined our integrity and our reputation – and it’s created a very unhealthy atmosphere of distrust.”
That “atmosphere of distrust,” of course, came to the surface in the last few weeks—in the emotional response to academic advisor Mary Willingham’s assertion that many UNC athletes read below an eighth-grade level and that officials in the academic support center turned a blind eye to evidence of phony classes and plagiarism.
High-ranking UNC officials—including Folt—spoke out vehemently against Willingham at a faculty council meeting last week; Provost Jim Dean called her research “a travesty.” But the attacks also got personal as well: Willingham says she even received death threats after going public with her concerns earlier this month.
In response to that, Folt sent an email to the campus community this week calling for civility—a call she reiterated on Thursday.
“This type of dialogue is essential to a University community,” she said. “But whether we’re going to agree or disagree, we have to really make this a healthy debate. We have to welcome it. And we have to respect each other in this debate, and do it in ways that show the true character of our Carolina community.”
But while she discussed the AFAM scandal in more detail, Folt had little to say about Willingham’s charges, which have occupied the more recent headlines.
“We have an external panel coming forward,” she told reporters, “and we’ll talk to you about it when that’s complete.”
Still, Folt did insist that Willingham was still welcome at Carolina.
“She absolutely is continuing her work,” she said. “The studies you’ve read have not been part of her job here.”
The central message of Thursday’s meeting, though, was that UNC officials—and the Board of Trustees—support what the University is doing now to address the ongoing issues surrounding academics and athletics. That includes a working group led by Provost Jim Dean and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham.
“Our Board expectation is straightforward,” said Board Chair Lowry Caudill. “We want to compete academically and athletically at the highest levels with utmost integrity. We are pleased that our improvements over the past several years, and our current efforts, are leading to a sustainable approach.”
Speaking after the meeting, Chancellor Folt agreed.
“There isn’t a faculty member, or a staff member, or (anyone) that’s a part of this that don’t want to get it right,” she said.