“The Carolina Way”. It is a term that has long been used by those associated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The connotations have by and large stood for “doing things the right way”. Always being honorable. Always making the correct choice. Always doing for group and university, rather than for self.
The following declarations are proudly displayed on the website of the University’s Office of Student Council:
“Since the 1875, students at the University of North Carolina have had a tradition of self-governance in matters of student discipline. Our students have pledged themselves not to lie, cheat, or steal. This commitment to academic integrity, ethical behavior, personal responsibility and civil discourse exemplifies the “Carolina Way” and serve as the foundation for our student-led Honor System.
The Office of Student Conduct supports the fostering and development of students at the University by promoting honor, integrity, and ethical decision making. This philosophy supports the student-led Honor System’s promotion of the Carolina Way by educating the campus on community expectations and responsibilities. When the need arises, the student-led Honor System adjudicates allegations of violations to community standards. This site is designed to help promote Honor at Carolina. The Honor Code can be found as part of the Instrument of Student Judicial Governance (Instrument). The Instrument outlines the prohibited conduct, policies and procedures for adjudicating allegations of student misconduct.”
Over the past several decades the phrase has transcended beyond the regular student body, and has been a battle cry of honor for the school’s various athletic programs; teams that have enjoyed unparalleled success on the courts and fields, and whose marketing brand has brought millions of dollars to the school in the form of consumer revenue.
Hall of Fame basketball coach Dean Smith wrote a book in 2004 titled The Carolina Way: Leadership Lessons from a Life in Coaching. He was long viewed as the paradigm of the phrase; his teams won, and his players almost always graduated. The overall graduation rate of his dozens of Carolina basketball teams was a reported 96%.
Smith retired in 1997, and for over a decade his (and the school’s) image remained spotless. The proud phrase stood strong, and the university continued to be viewed as a top educational university.
Questions would arise, however. And following the questions would come data, which would point to solid facts. And with those facts would emerge doubts. Athletes were given preferential treatment, above and beyond the normal scholarship stipulations. Money was paid, at times apparently with coaches’ knowledge. Most seriously, however, were the academic misdeeds. Grades were given for classes that athletes never attended, and in many cases those classes never even existed, except on paper. Other grades were changed by academic adults associated with the school, without permission. And in certain cases, these fraudulent grades appear to be the only things that kept some athletes eligible to participate.
Without the money, the grades, and the fraud that benefitted countless star players dating back to the early 1990’s, certain players may not have chosen to attend the school, and the various teams surely would not have achieved the same success – on the fields, on the courts, and certainly not in the classrooms. Graduation rates would have been much different, as would the bottom line of marketing revenue. And perhaps most importantly to those who claim to care, the reputation of the school – and the phrase “The Carolina Way” – would also mean something else entirely.
* * *
Mark Emmert, the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, stood at the podium on Monday, July 23, 2012. He was before a packed room of reporters in order to address a terrible crime against humanity – which also happened to have a direct tie to athletics. A cover-up had occurred at Penn State University, and Emmert’s organization, the NCAA, saw it within their bounds to take strong and swift corrective action.
The events at Penn State were horrific, and nothing else in the history of college sports can compare to the pain that the victims endured. Emmert had a wider message to give on that day, however, which was a warning and guideline to all universities that serve the greater good of its students (and student-athletes). It was a message that seemed to indicate why those schools have athletic programs in the first place: to teach honor, fairness, and positive life lessons.
In the midst of passing down Penn State’s sanctions, Emmert gave a seemingly larger message that resonated from the podium:
"These events should serve as a call to every single school and athletics department to take an honest look at its campus environment and eradicate the 'sports are king' mindset that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators."
It is doubtful that Emmert knew just how prophetic and accurate his words were on that day. There have been many other cases of impermissible benefits in college sports. There have been occasional instances of random teachers giving preferential grades and treatment. But never has there been a case when multiple factions within a university and culture did so much to cover up decades of improprieties – improprieties that did exactly what Emmert’s words described.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, since at least the early 1990’s, did just that: It allowed a ‘sports are king’ mindset to cloud the judgment of its educators. Coaches were complicit, as were boosters, fundraisers, tutors, administrative assistants, tenured professors, and even administrators. Collectively, they have allowed a once-proud phrase – and, consequently an entire university – to have its reputation tarnished and compromised. Even worse, many have refused to come forward and speak out against the improprieties. Instead, they have continued to tout those words despite strong public evidence that the phrase has been largely bolstered not through honorable actions, but rather through deliberate academic and social deceit. Sadly, evidence shows that the old “Carolina Way” is no more, with the new version being a far cry from what the school and its alumni once envisioned.
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