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At UNC Chapel Hill, a promising admission

It might not seem terribly noteworthy that UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt acknowledged this week what most people can plainly see about the school’s academic and athletic scandals. But given the university’s evasive, combative, nothing-more-to-see-here posture of the last several years, it’s progress.

At a Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, Folt said that UNC accepted responsibility for the lack of oversight that resulted in years of bogus African studies courses. Almost half the students in those classes were athletes, she said. “It has undermined our integrity and our reputation, and created a very unhealthy atmosphere of distrust,” she said.

The scandal involving those courses, as well as other academic and athletic issues at UNC, has been reported for years by our colleagues at the News & Observer in Raleigh. So Folt’s acknowledgment was about as revelatory as admitting that UNC really likes to beat the school down the road in Durham in basketball.

But Folt, importantly, also said this: “At Carolina, proceeding toward meaningful athletic and academic reform is requiring us to fully acknowledge and accept lessons of our past.” It’s encouraging that Folt, just six months into the job, went further with those words than UNC officials have gone in years.

As recently as last week, however, the school continued to fight back against the perception that athletic and academic problems might run deeper than officials have admitted. When whistleblower Mary Willingham told CNN this month about research showing low literacy levels among UNC football and basketball players, UNC responded with a full court defensive press. Provost Jim Dean called the research “a travesty.” The university issued news releases poking at Willingham’s work. The school decided, suddenly, that the research threatened student privacy, and halted it.

It’s true that Willingham might have shared her research with UNC before divulging it to media, but school officials already had responded dismissively to concerns she’d previously expressed about athletes and academics. A better response to the CNN story would have been to acknowledge Willingham’s concerns and offer to meet and explore her research. Attacking the messenger only deepens the “atmosphere of distrust” that Folt lamented this week.

Similarly, UNC has denied requests from the News & Observer for data that could shed more light on the athletic and academic scandal. Since June, the newspaper has asked for data about bogus academic classes that the school sent to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges. UNC officials say they are protecting student privacy, but the N&O has requested info that excludes information that could identify individual students.

The newspaper finally sued for that information Thursday, the same day Folt made her remarks to trustees.

It’s old-school public relations to acknowledge what everyone already knows in an effort to avoid what everyone doesn’t yet realize. UNC officials have used the tactic from the beginning of these athletic and academic scandals. We hope Chancellor Folt wasn’t attempting the same this week, but her words will be meaningful only if she follows through on the “fully” part of acknowledging and accepting the past.

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