While the nation was entrenched in the Super Bowl two weeks ago, a small but very important anniversary in the sports universe went largely unnoticed. Feb. 7 marked the first anniversary of the death of Dean Smith, the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach. A man revered for his commitment to integrity and the importance of academics in collegiate athletics, Smith and the powerhouse UNC program he built were shining examples that excellence on the basketball court could coincide with excellence in the classroom. Today, the university that Smith helped forge an impeccable identity with finds itself embedded in one of the largest academic scandals in NCAA history. As details continue to pour out, the university is tasked with maintaining its reputation as one of the most prestigious universities in the country and reassuring its audiences that academics do not take a backseat to athletics.
The scandal revolves around the African-American Studies department at UNC and scam classes that have become known as “paper classes.” These classes never met and simply required a single paper to pass. On the surface, the classes don’t sound entirely like shams– just somewhat. But when you see what passes for an A grade and the demographics of them you see exactly what they were created for. They were simply meant to maintain NCAA eligibility requirements and move athletes right along.
PR wise, the scandal is an utter disaster for not just UNC, but also the NCAA ruling body. One of the chief concepts (that is highly debated) behind collegiate athletics is that the education scholarship athletes receive are proper compensation for their work at the school. But what happens when that education is diluted by grade mill classes? It just further amplifies the public perception that schools are using athletes as profit and exposure generators.
The University of North Carolina’s responses up to this point have been about as good a university charged with “lack of institutional control” can be. In 2013, the Chancellor of UNC, Holden Thorp, stepped down and in his place stepped Carol Folt who implemented 70 reform plans. The reforms were made to ensure the public that serious changes were being made in light of the scandal.
One of the best ways the University of North Carolina has responded to the scandal was launching a portal on the school’s official website regarding the issue in 2014. The page lays everything out for you, from press releases to university progress reports. The Carolina Commitment page serves as a form of transparency and is used as a communication channel for the university to speak directly with audiences seeking information. Chancellor Folt releasing statements on the page about any updates is a great example of good crisis response work by the university. It shows from the head down that the school is making efforts in ridding the university of institutional dishonesty. The transparency is important because it shows that UNC is not shying away and hoping for the scandal to just disappear. Instead, UNC is taking action and showing you the reforming work the school has implemented and the progress it is making. That transparency shows is mutually beneficial for UNC and its publics because the feedback its audiences gives in response to the school’s strategies shows what is working and what needs changing.
I can’t imagine that if Dean Smith was still alive he would feel much pride toward UNC for the fact that it allowed this to even happen in the first place. However, I think he would have appreciated the work the school has put in righting its wrongs. In the meantime, at least its not SMU.