Chapel Hill’s Sad Lesson

Holden Thorp’s resignation as North Carolina’s chancellor shows that “putting presidents in charge” is a hollow slogan in big-time college sports, writes Robert Malekoff.

September 19, 2012

Last week my daughter sent me a link to a website that ranked the alleged “Top 100 Universities in the World.” (She was proud that her school – the University of Pittsburgh -- had made the list, albeit sneaking in at number 98.) The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was in 57th place, one slot ahead of the United Kingdom’s University of Warwick.

Like UNC, Warwick is a public school, but a comparative newcomer founded in 1965. Its mission statement notes goals consistent with America’s finest public universities, such as “become a world leader in research and teaching” and “equip graduates to make a important contribution to the economy and to society.” To have earned such a superb international reputation in not quite 50 years of existence, it must be doing something right.

In the wake of Monday afternoon’s news that UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp – rightly or wrongly under fire for myriad athletics-related transgressions in Chapel Hill -- had decided to step down, I wondered what role sports played on Warwick’s campus. The university website notes opportunities to participate in over 75 club teams (from rugby to windsurfing, and everything you can imagine in between), an initiative known as “Warwick Active” promoting physical activities for all members of the university community, and a wide variety of additional opportunities suggesting an environment that values the pursuit of a physically vigorous lifestyle.

The adages “sound mind, sound body” and  “something for everyone” immediately came to mind. As is the case in virtually all of higher education except for the United States, more highly competitive sports are conducted outside the Warwick campus. In fact, with the billions American universities spend on the pursuit of championships, our society’s proclivity to yield to every need and desire of television executives, and compensation for coaches dwarfing that of college presidents, I’m convinced that Thorp’s counterparts at schools like Warwick may think that our system of Division I intercollegiate athletics borders on insanity.

Many fans of North Carolina’s Tar Heels have long believed that their pristine campus was above the scandals and seemliness of big-time sports. That happened to the other guys, the play-fast-and-loose crowd from the Southeastern Conference, those intellectual lesser lights in the Big 12, and yes, the wannabes up the road at N.C. State in Raleigh. Be assured, many are reveling in UNC’s agony.

But what happened at Chapel Hill and to Thorp could have happened at any major university that chases the often-false glory associated with big-time college sports in America. To blame Thorp for Carolina football players taking money from agents or athletes being steered to courses where they were assured high grades is taking the easy way out and not really addressing the root of the problem.

The popular cry from those who favor reform is “the presidents need to take charge.” If only it were that simple. In reality, when it comes to college sports some presidents are little more than middle managers stuck in between high-profile coaches and ineffective, often not particularly courageous trustees.

I once asked a well-known university president why he and his colleagues hadn’t done more to clean up college sports. He confessed that a university CEO who endeavored to take on big-time football or basketball did so at the risk of spending so much political capital as to be rendered powerless in addressing more important needs such as student affordability, funding for research and facilities, support to attract top faculty, etc.

Indeed, it is not unusual to hear about trustees who appear more concerned with their school landing a top quarterback or power forward than a scientist whose research might hold the key to fighting an incurable disease.

So where do we go from here? Holden Thorp’s exit changes nothing. The new chancellor will be faced with the same challenges many university leaders do in terms of controlling their most visible sports programs. The ball is in the trustees’ court, and if they can’t figure out a way for sports to be a legitimate part of the university and not the other way around, perhaps UNC should look overseas -- maybe there’s room in the University of Warwick’s league.


Bob Malekoff is an associate professor and department chair of Sport Studies at Guilford College.


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