It was 2010. The Tar Heels were fresh off a two-year-streak of bowl game appearances for the first time since 1998. Football was making a comeback under the watchful eye of coach Butch Davis, and the men’s basketball team had just won the 2009 NCAA tournament.
But that legacy changed when talk of fake classes and special treatment for athletes began to make waves.
The 2010 football scandal opened the floodgates to the now infamous academic-athletic scandal that made national headlines and led to a high profile investigation of the University’s athletic programs by the NCAA. The 2014 Wainstein Report confirmed that at least 3,100 UNC students took “paper classes,” and that 48 percent of those students were athletes.
“We should’ve been much quicker and much more forthcoming with information," said Holden Thorp, who was UNC’s chancellor during the initial stages of the scandal. "It turns out, when the Wainstein Report was done, there was more information, but not really anything new. The fact that we were slow and resistant in giving up certain information created the impression that we were hiding something.”
When reflecting on his decision to leave in 2013, Thorp said the choice he made looks better and better as time goes on. In a statement published by the University, he said he wanted to do what was best for UNC at the time. He said he thinks he could have continued on as chancellor, but that by leaving, former Chancellor Carol Folt was able to deal with the scandal without becoming the centerpiece of the public’s speculation.
“(Folt) never really became the focal point of the controversy,” Thorp said. “I think the way these things work is that, when the controversy starts on your watch, if you leave, you kind of take the suspense about the leadership away with you, and the next team can work to straighten out the remaining parts.”
Steve Kirschner, UNC's senior associate athletic director for communications, said it was frustrating reading all of the information regarding the scandal published by the media because the University was not allowed to comment on or attempt to correct reports in the midst of numerous investigations.
“From 2010 until the fall of 2017 — now we weren’t, for that entire time, in the midst of an NCAA investigation, but for much of it we were. That was very difficult to hear people talk about the school that I’ve worked for for 30 plus years, that I love, that I have a great deal of respect for. When you hear people make comments, sometimes snide comments, about things that happen here, that’s difficult,” Kirschner said.
Kirschner said although the University was unable to comment, and chose not to once it was able to, he thinks its ability to keep its reputation and credibility intact is a testament to UNC’s superior education and community.
“I think the number one thing we had going for us was the University of North Carolina and the academic experience that people had," he said. "The people that were in the classes in question, overall, had a fantastic academic experience … It’s a world-class education.”
Thorp said hiring Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham is one of his proudest accomplishments at UNC. Cunningham was hired when former Director of Athletics Dick Baddour announced he was stepping down, a day after the University fired former football coach Butch Davis because of damage inflicted on the University's reputation by the 2010 football scandal.
“It was very informal before, and Bubba has a lot of process and things like that in place," Thorp said. "The biggest thing that went wrong was that, for all those years — and I grew up with this — there was this thing that Carolina succeeded at athletics, and we never had any problems. I think it’s impossible to succeed at athletics and win as much as we do without having these kinds of things from time to time.”
Thorp said the release of the report and the scandal in general served as a lesson for him. As current editor-in-chief of Science Magazine, he said if a scandal were to arise in his current position, he would be much more outright with any information to the public. Additionally, he said he carried what he learned at UNC into his time as Provost at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
“In six years at WashU, we never had anything like this happen, and we did release a lot of stuff," Thorp said. "I learned a lot of lessons that I used there and will use [at Science Magazine].”
Jay Smith, a UNC professor and co-author of "Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports," a book that details the fallout and implications of the academic-athletic scandal, said he agrees it was time for Thorp to leave — but that his decision set an unfortunate precedent for future UNC chancellors.
“Protecting the brand and dealing less than transparently with all of our problems just became a default setting in the University’s leadership circles, and I’m kind of afraid that we’re still stuck in that rut,” he said.
Smith said he thinks, regardless of the scandal, a UNC education is as respected today as ever. But he said the damage from the academic-athletic scandal still endures today.
“We’ll probably never outlive the stain that the scandal has inflicted, at least on the reputation of our leadership both in the academic and athletic arenas,” Smith said. “In my opinion, we’ve failed to be forthright. We’ve failed to own our mistakes, and we, in the end, opted for an official position of hypocrisy in order to escape NCAA punishment. We’re going to be mocked forever for that.”
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