The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been teaching us all a lesson on how not to handle a scandal.
The administration has skipped the chapters on the healthful effects of transparency and the notion that as many government documents as possible ought to be available to the public for inspection and review.
For those who came in late: Five years ago, UNC was exposed in an academic fraud case.
More than 3,100 students, about half of them athletes, were caught taking “paper” courses without classroom teaching, exams or other routine educational hassles. A clerk in the African and Afro-American Studies Department made up most of these courses and, on her own, awarded As and Bs if a student produced some kind of paper.
Four employees were fired as a result. The professor who was the instructor of record for many of these fake classes had conveniently retired. Chancellor Holden Thorp resigned soon afterward.
Eventually, the NCAA — the oft-maligned governing organization for college athletics — got involved. Those fake classes and unearned A’s might have affected some athletes’ eligibility. Keeping star players eligible to continue being star players is essential to success on the playing field, after all.
Nothing much happened, though, and Chapel Hill athletes continued playing in NCAA events without penalty but certainly under a cloud and some skepticism from the public not only in North Carolina, but nationally as well.
Now, UNC-Chapel Hill officials are asking the NCAA to forgo any punishment. Its argument: Five years have passed, and the NCAA probe has found nothing.
“Sunshine” advocates, however, find that argument specious. One big reason the NCAA hasn’t found anything is that UNC officials have been sitting on evidence.
North Carolina’s public records law contains a gaping loophole: Documents relating to the performance of state employees are confidential. There’s an exception, though, when the integrity of a government agency is in question. Chapel Hill already released some athletes’ transcripts in a 2012 court case relating to an NCAA investigation of its football team. So what’s the problem with releasing the rest?
The whole fake-class scandal has undeniably besmirched the integrity of UNC’s flagship campus, which once prided itself on high academic standards and “clean” athletic programs. Not too awfully long ago the “UNC Way” was the trademark for how a collegiate program should be operated.
How did top administrators miss this problem for years? There ought to be a paper trail, from which the names of students and innocent parties can be edited. Why can’t the people of North Carolina see it?
The current UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, Carol Folt, says the university has taken steps to clean up these problems. We believe that to be true, but some evidence of it would be welcomed. Otherwise, how do we know for sure?
This issue and so many others come back to the idea that open government serves the public only when government is truly open. In this case, the public deserves to know.
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