Outsourcing leadership at UNC

UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt listens in October 2014 to then UNC president Tom Ross talking about academic fraud at the University of North Carolina.
UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt listens in October 2014 to then UNC president Tom Ross talking about academic fraud at the University of North Carolina.

Like many, I was distressed, though not surprised, that UNC Chapel Hill has spent north of $10 million on public relations consultants and lawyers to deal with our academic and athletic scandals. I suppose this is what the aspiration to “run the university like a business” looks like.

Over $5 million went to Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. The folks at Skadden, Arps got a couple million more. We paid $1.3 million to Bond, Schoeneck & King; another million to Baker, Tilly. Almost double that amount went to Edelman, a giant PR outfit, offering expertise on “corporate reputation management.” FleishmanHillard raked in almost $400,000. You’d think the Old Well had relocated to Madison Avenue.

There are, I suppose, millions of things that could be said of this. I limit myself to two.

First, at the end of every story about UNC’s breathtaking expenditures, the same concluding assurance appears. “Officials say that none of these legal and public relations bills are paid for by tuition or state appropriations.” The money comes from the private UNC Foundation. Not to worry.

This is, at best, only half the story. Much money given to the university is designated for a specific purpose – to create scholarships for needy students, to build new classroom facilities, to support professorships in the arts, and the like.

The dollars used to pay PR flacks and branding specialists, on the other hand, must come from undesignated gifts. When we spend $10 million or $15 million on the nation’s most expensive lawyers and corporate consultants, we deploy funds that could have supported impoverished Carolina Covenant students, or increased skimpy graduate student stipends, or raised the salaries of maintenance workers. I’ve never heard the university admit this. So enough with the “it’s only private money” charade.

Second, when did we decide to routinely outsource the obligations of leadership? Chapel Hill has a very robust legion of well-provided for administrators. We have a chancellor and a provost. Each has a bountiful array of associates. They are supported by a hefty public relations team and a first-rate group of lawyers.

Our greatest chancellor, William B. Aycock, died a few months ago. Dealing with crises like the Dixie Classic and the Speaker Ban, Aycock saw his share of trouble. Still, he never considered hiring “the most complete communications agency in the world.”

Thinking of Aycock, it’s easy to envision two distinct approaches to leadership and problem solving. In the first, decision-makers sit around a huge table in South Building. There is a chancellor and her cadre of assistants. And then a provost and his sizable group. Add to that our internal public relations team and our external PR posse. And internal and external groups of lawyers.

They work for days, or weeks, responding to a crisis. Eventually a decision is made, and the final product is so chockablock with doublespeak that faculty members jokingly circulate email translations for the bureaucratically unschooled.

In the other model, Aycock makes the toughest decisions. And with pen and yellow legal pad, he explains them to the university community and to the people of North Carolina.

The first model, of course, costs millions. The second, a relative pittance. But the cheap route would outperform the big boys every time.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC Chapel Hill.