In that time, the University’s reputation has come into question, as well as those problems’ long-term effects on the UNC brand.
The saga’s latest chapter has seen former learning specialist Mary Willingham make claims about the literacy levels of former football and basketball players — a subject that first made its way into a Jan. 7 CNN report, followed by an article in Bloomberg Businessweek that featured a basketball jersey with a large “F” on the cover. Willingham’s research has since been discounted by three outside researchers.
The stories also come as the N.C. General Assembly’s budgetary commitment to the University is of concern to faculty and administrators.
But just as the national media’s coverage of the scandal has been brought to a boil, with many outlets digging up years-old news in comprehensive stories about UNC’s issues, a public relations specialist has taken the helm at South Building.
The first-ever vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, Joel Curran, has worked in PR for companies like Disney and is paid $300,000 annually.
In an interview, Curran said the UNC brand is still prominent despite all the bad press.
“From my perspective, if you look across the broad narrative of this University we still are incredibly strong as we have been in our schools and in general as a thought leader among public research universities.”
He said the University has been promoting transparency by creating websites like Carolina Commitment , an online resource for University related documents.
“I think our brand is who we are,” he said. “It’s also our recent past and how we respond to our recent past.”
Communications strategist David Rosen has worked in the communications departments of five universities and colleges, including Harvard University .
Rosen believes that while branding educates people unfamiliar with the University, donors and prospective students look most at reputation, which is something he thinks negative attention is more likely to impact.
“Branding is how the University sees itself and reputation is how others want to see it. The two must be as close together as possible.” he said.
Some current students worry that the recent negative attention will affect how employers view their degrees.
Andrew Burchins, a senior computer science major, said UNC’s scandals were brought up in a job interview with a manager at Cisco.
“I got there, and I was talking about where I was from, and I when I told them they were like, ‘They seem pretty plagued by some problems,’” he said.
At the time, Burchins said he had not heard back from the company, but he said he thinks his coursework will matter the most, ultimately.
Tarun Kushwaha and Andrew Petersen, marketing professors at Kenan-Flagler Business School, have been doing research on donor behavior in response to negative and positive publicity for nonprofits. Their research was inspired after hearing that Penn State experienced the largest amount of donations during its football scandal.
Petersen said the nature of the scandal is fleeting.
“All we have to do is win a national championship,” he said. “A national championship will cause memory loss.”
The annual gift totals to UNC have trended upward since 2005. Donations peaked in 2008, at $300.9 million, the last fiscal year of UNC’s last major fundraising drive. The eight-year Carolina First campaign collectively raised $2.38 billion, and UNC is getting ready to launch a new major fundraising campaign.
Director of Development Communications Scott Ragland said UNC has received $208.4 million in private gifts and grants in the current fiscal year, compared to $196.2 million at this time last year.
C. Hawkins, manager of student engagement for the General Alumni Association Office, said 81 percent of donor dollars donated to the University comes from GAA dollars. He said that the GAA, which has nearly 70,000 members, has not noticed a decrease in memberships throughout the years.
“We have the most loyal supporters and alumni,” Hawkins said. “We weather all storms with the University.”
Raleigh Marrow, who works for UNC Phonathon, said she does not think the recent scandals ultimately affect the amount of alumni donations.
“I guess they’re more happy after we do well in athletics, but I feel like it doesn’t really change their minds because if they were already planning to donate they will,” she said.
Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News and World Report, said he does not think the recent scandals have affected UNC’s undergraduate academic reputation, so far.
Morse helps write the U.S. News and World Report’s annual college ranking, which placed UNC 21st in academic reputation.
Around 900 top university officials and thousands of high school counselors were surveyed about academic reputation, which is tied with retention as the largest single factor in the rankings.
According to a 2013 survey of first -year students conducted by University of California—Los Angeles, incoming freshman cited academic reputation as the No. 1 factor for choosing a college.
According to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, an unprecedented 31,321 students applied to UNC. The number of applicants has trended upwards in recent years.
Vany Nguyen, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, was admitted early action to UNC. Although she is still waiting to hear back from other schools, she said a positive academic reputation will play a role in making her decision. To her, the scandals do not affect her plans.
“UNC offers a great education at a reasonable price,” she said. “I like how UNC has the number two pharmacy school, too.”
Curran emphasized that the University’s efforts to improve its communication are not intended to cover up past mistakes but rather address the problems at hand.
“I don’t think you can manufacture a positive brand,” said Curran.
“I think the Carolina brand is something that is a mosaic that has come over decades and in some respect centuries of foundational work that has been done to build such a strong academic experience.”
Rosen believes it is up to the administration to take responsibility for the scandals and resolve underlying problems.
“If the brand is at odds with the reputation, do something tangible to act on it,” he said.