A few years ago, Dick Baddour returned from a national faculty meeting where he received widespread praise from other schools for how much the UNC faculty loved the affable Carolina athletic director.
Some of those other professors did not get along so well with their athletic departments. Baddour was held up as a model of how the faculty should have a voice about athletics on campus. At most other schools, athletic directors don’t come from the faculty and have no problem marching across campus to say “button it up” if someone speaks publicly out of turn.
That’s the problem. At UNC, the faculty has long had too much of a voice on athletics. Although there is always a natural adversarial relationship between those who teach and make six figures and those who coach and make seven figures, the faculty at Carolina (in general) has never really gotten the point.
The athletic department is a self-sustaining business, a private ad-hoc corporation, that generates multi-millions in revenues and disperses pretty much the same amount (with a little held in reserve) to balance the budget that pays coaches and staff, funds scholarships and improves facilities in the so-called arms race.
During the recent and ongoing football scandal, I have been branded as an anti-football faculty apologist who helped get Butch Davis fired. Neither is even close to the truth. I’m not a faculty member or apologist (you should have seen my GPA at UNC!), and nobody got Butch Davis fired but Butch Davis.
I do support Holden Thorp and how he handled a very difficult situation that he had no earthly idea would fall into his lap when Erskine Bowles asked him to be the next Chancellor in 2008. Thorp withstood all kinds of pressure, from within and without, took a crash course in college athletics and made choices that created short-term publicity burn but were best for the long run at UNC.
Now, Thorp would be well-advised to try to put some kind of muzzle on the faculty, although he certainly does it at his own peril. A story on Yahoo.com, by celebrated sportswriter Pat Forde, is an example of how Carolina is getting very low grades in damage control and managing its own PR during the football disaster.
Sue Estroff, a 30-year tenured professor who was quoted frequently during her days as the Faculty Chair, and history professor Jay Smith might have been speaking the painful truth in the Yahoo column. But who are they to be spokespersons for UNC during such treacherous times? Who appointed them faculty mouthpieces to make a bad situation worse? Smith started when the New York Times’ Joe Nocera showed up on campus and his inflammatory email is the centerpiece of the Forde column.
(I quote Smith’s email that was published by Yahoo with the understanding that I, too, may be making a bad situation worse, but nevertheless to prove a point).
“Of course it’s academic fraud,” Smith wrote. “And it’s a form of fraud that was designed (by whom we can’t say yet) to keep athletes eligible, making plausible ‘progress toward the degree.’ I don’t blame the athletes – and that’s important to make clear. Many of us feel this way. It’s not the athletes’ fault that they’re often being shepherded through a bogus course of study, and are also made to pay the piper if they fall short of some measure invented by the NCAA.
“It’s the system that’s corrupt, and it’s the adults who benefit from the system – starting with school administrators and faculty – who have to have the gumption to live up to their moral obligations and say enough is enough.”
“To me the worst damage has come, and continues to come, from the university’s defensive and less-than-forthcoming reaction to the entire story,” Smith wrote in his email. “The university very much looks like it’s trying to hide something. An objective outsider could reach no other conclusion. That does not reflect well on any of us. In fact, it’s embarrassing.”
And then Smith fired the shot that is sure to be sending Tar Heels into rage from the Smith Center to the alumni hinterlands.
“I think it’s high time for all of us to know the full extent of the fraudulent behavior,” Smith wrote. “Were members of the 2009 and 2005 national championship (basketball) teams also beneficiaries of the AFAM/AFRI scam? I for one see no reason to assume that they were not. If the university wants to prove they were not, the whole world is listening.”
Estroff, a professor of social medicine, spoke out like she did in the past on far more benign athletic matters, such as how much money was being spent to send the football team to a bowl game. That was tame compared to this.
“It’s demoralizing,” said Estroff. “It’s dumbfounding. It’s embarrassing. It’s maddening. What else can I say? It’s not what anybody wanted. It belongs to all of us, and you can’t put it in just one place. It’s impossible to defend, nor should we try.”
Added Estroff: “I would like to have seen a more robust, more forceful response. But there’s a reason I’m not a university president or chancellor. I don’t have that skill set.”
Every scintilla of what Smith and Estroff say may be (and probably is) true. But that’s why we have Nancy Davis, Mike McFarland and Karen Moon in the general administration, and Steve Kirschner in athletics who often makes the right suggestions on what to say but isn’t always heard as much as he should be.
They, together with Thorp and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham, need to be the people who shape the message and decide who delivers it and how. Not when some cagey columnist shows up and hunts down the usual suspects whose job it is to be heard in the classroom. Period.
The faculty should certainly have a say. That’s why they have department meetings and the ear of the Chancellor. But, when it comes to athletic controversy, especially the measure of what we have now, the faculty needs to stay out of the public forum, shut up and teach. Now that we have the right people in place at the athletic department, it’s their job to speak with one voice and help get us out of the mess as best they can.