James Dean, the executive vice chancellor and provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, flew to New York, arriving at Bloomberg headquarters on Saturday to deliver a heartening message. He wanted to do it in person. “We made mistakes. Horrible things happened that I’m ashamed of,” he said over coffee in our newsroom, sparsely populated on a weekend. “Student-athletes and other students, too, were hurt” as a result of hundreds of phony classes offered beginning sometime in the 1990s. “The integrity of our university was badly damaged.”
Chapel Hill’s top executive for academics, its No. 2 official overall, came to New York to underscore that his fine university—a pillar of public education and a force in Division 1 sports—”hasn’t been clear enough about what went wrong.” He said he and his boss, Chancellor Carol Folt, are determined to change direction. “To fix things, we have to understand what actually happened in the past,” Dean added. He came to us because Bloomberg Businessweek has been examining the corruption of academics at Chapel Hill—although such problems are not unique to the school—as an illustration of how the drive to win lucrative college basketball and football championships undermines the education of undergraduates.
NCAA Inc. is a multibillion-dollar industry with tens of millions of avid customers—college sports fans. Holding UNC and the rest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association accountable, therefore, seems appropriate.
Dean, whose recent actions and public comments I’ve criticized as tending to obfuscate more than clarify, left little doubt in my mind that at least the message from Chapel Hill changed last week. Whether the rhetorical shift signals a deeper adjustment of actions and attitudes remains to be seen. Dean amplified comments made Thursday by Folt to the university’s board of trustees acknowledging “a failure in academic oversight for years” that was “wrong and…undermined our integrity and our reputation.” She added: “We actually do feel accountable and…we’re going to learn from that painful history.”