Reflecting on a year of scandals by looking at the story of Chancellor Folt.
BY DUNCAN YETMAN
Those who are unaware of UNC’s academic history may feel sorry for Chancellor Folt. After becoming UNC Chancellor in April 2014, she has become the face of an academic scandal in the African-American Studies Department, culminating in a damning report by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein. Look closely, however, and it is clear that Chancellor Folt’s tenure at Carolina has not only been dictated, but created by scandal.
The timeline begins in 2012. Pressured by numerous academic investigations, Chancellor Holden Thorp announced his resignation from the university. Weeks later, a search committee was established. The committee was composed of 21 members representing a wide-variety of UNC interests, including students, faculty, donors, and athletic boosters. It seemed clear from the onset that this search was not necessarily about reversing Chancellor Thorp’s academic record, which resulted in increases to both undergraduate applications and research grants, but to rather improve the balance between athletics and academics at UNC. After a six month search behind closed doors, Chancellor Folt was unanimously selected by the UNC Board of Governors in a largely ceremonial vote.
Those who knew Chancellor Folt were likely surprised by the decision. Before coming to UNC, Folt had spent 11 years in leadership positions at Dartmouth – about as far as one can be from the athletically-driven, public nature of UNC. Initially hired by Dartmouth in 1983, Folt quickly rose to become dean of faculty in 2004, and then interim president in 2012 after Jim Yong Kim left to become the head of the IMF.
Her tenure there, however, was not always peaceful. Notable among her decisions was to pass/fail an entire class after widespread complaints of unfair grades by Jon Appleton, one of the distinguished faculty members at Dartmouth. Responding to a question raised by a member of the Dartblog, a campus newspaper, Appleton responded as follows:
@ Noah Ponton
“When Folt changed all the grades to ‘pass’ without ever having looked at the work or having spoken to me, I went to Jim Wright to complain… He said I shouldn’t make so much of the violation of my academic freedom as I was part of the ‘Dartmouth family.’… But then I did write to the faculty and this was picked up by the state and national press.”
The response by Folt, among others, was less than welcoming. “When this article and others appeared Folt, college attorney[Robert] Donin and former Provost [Barry] Scherr called a meeting and threatened me with disciplinary action if I did not cease my public campaign to reveal their violation of my academic freedom… I taught at Dartmouth forty-three years. The first forty were a gift and the last three a nightmare.”
While some may criticize her judgment at the time, the decision of Folt to pass/fail the grades speaks to her desire to deal with crises actively rather than passively, placing more importance on the general image of the university than any particular faculty member. Other instances, such as her decision to cancel classes for a day after racist comments were raised online (more on this story here) solidify this preference.
This boldness to stand up to faculty is not her only defining characteristic. In 2011 she helped create Dartmouth’s first campus-wide strategic planning process. Rather than one large report, the process was a combination of nine groups which offered a wide variety of criticisms. Though the exact details of the report are closed-off for non-Dartmouth students and alumni (thanks, Dartmouth), the summary of the process contained a wide range of suggestions, from “supporting faculty experimentation…, developing a comprehensive communication strategy…, [and] promot[ing] greater engagement with international alumni.” It’s pretty clear that many of these goals are rather vague, yes, but they demonstrate Folt and others’ desire to frame the university in a particular context, and essentially establish a clear narrative on how to lead Dartmouth into the future.
These two skills — her independence and her desire for a campus-wide vision — were exactly the characteristics UNC wanted. Beginning in 2012, Mary Willingham, a UNC employee who worked with an athlete support program, alleged to reporters that UNC athletes received improper help from faculty. While defended by the media, her divisive comments (she once said that “We may as well go right up the street to Glenwood Elementary and let all the fourth graders in here”) caused unease within the university. Though the scandal had begun a year earlier, the revelation began a firestorm of media attention, little of it positive. Following her resignation in 2014 due to a hostile work environment, she filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming that the university’s “retaliatory animus was a substantial causative factor for the adverse action that was taken against the plaintiff [Willingham.]”
At the same time, UNC was also challenged by a sexual assault scandal. Like many universities around the country, UNC faced criticism for its insufficient policies regarding sexual assault, namely, insufficient support and the policy of relegating sexual misconduct matters to the Honor Court. As a result of these policies, two complaints were filed to the Department of Education in January 2013, shortly followed by one of the victims, Landen Gambill, being charged with an honor code violation for “intimidation of the attacker”. This action resulted in another federal investigation by the DOE, bringing the total to three cases. Such actions further mired the university into more cases of gross misconduct, cases which challenged UNC’s reputation for academic and social integrity.
The strong character of Folt followed her from Dartmouth. Rather than let Willingham’s report dictate the narrative of the scandal, Folt harshly criticized inaccuracies within the report and assigned a complete independent investigation last year. The report, led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, published its findings a few weeks, ago, to damming results. In initiating the report, however, Folt eliminated the flow of the damaging links and established a clear message that UNC was in control and prepared to move forward in the scandal. In remarks regarding the scandal, Folt said “I certainly learned from the day I arrived in North Carolina that this was an issue and that the lingering doubts were really hurting the institution.”
Her handling of the UNC sexual assault scandal, though less successful, still showed her preference for a strong stance – or at least the appearance of one. Over two years the university established a Title IX office to address compliance issues with the law, though some criticized her choice of Howard Kallem, who had little experience working with victims. Despite further criticisms about the scope and pace of reform, the university has largely pushed on, reviewing drafts of a new sexual assault policy with a sexual assault task force before releasing it on August 28th. One of the most important items was the clarification of consent, which under the new policy is “the communication of an affirmative ‘yes.’” The investigation portion of a sexual assault case was also simplified, with a clearer idea of where their case stands during the investigative process. A yearly review allows an advisory group to makes changes as needed, and thus respond to any weaknesses in the new system.
Why mention such specifics? Because it speaks to the work the university has done to at least try to make conclusive progress on UNC’s critical failures. The strong action by Folt has drawn some criticism, notably in her handling of Willingham’s report, but, as a whole, that strong stance has paid off. In this sense, she carried her assertiveness – what was often seen as a weakness at Dartmouth – over into an institution that needed a strong voice. Much of the success of the last two years, if not directly attributable to Folt, was assisted by her no-nonsense approach in an effort to unite the university around the scandals.
The question lingers, however, as to whether this stance will be beneficial to Carolina down the road. A sobering note would be to look at Dartmouth. In 2014 Dartmouth was the only Ivy League institution that experienced a decline in admissions, with applications falling by a whopping 14% from 2013 to 2014. While many of the reasons for this drop can be attributed to decisions made in the last two years – the decision, for instance, to not accept AP credits – one can wonder whether the culture Folt helped define created a negative environment for the university. That question, of course, is debatable.
What is clear, however, is that in the next few years Folt will have to do more than mere crisis management. The university is still reeling from historic budget cuts, yes, and while progress has been made on sexual assault, more work needs to be done. The critical question, however, for Folt is whether she can successfully balance UNC’s unique position as a research university, a public university, and an athletic university. For all of Thorp’s success and popularity, he was unable to achieve that balance. The question remains as to whether Folt will do the same.