The academic scandal that rocked the University of North Carolina from 2011 to 2014 epitomizes the need for decisive action to respond to circumstances that threaten an organization's integrity. Failing to respond – or delaying such a response – can threaten an organization's reputation for candor and transparency. Organizations must not react reflexively in these situations; rather, organizations must react in a way that bolsters or restores its integrity. And, where appropriate, organizations must accept responsibility, adopt and implement meaningful reforms, and transparently report what happened.
By early 2014, the University of North Carolina's flagship campus at Chapel Hill had been embroiled in scandal for more than three years. In 2011, the first evidence of academic irregularities began to emerge as the NCAA was winding down a multi-year investigation into allegations of recruiting and academic violations at the academic and athletic powerhouse. Pulling on the thread of suspected plagiarism and excessive tutoring assistance, UNC and NCAA officials tripped on information that suggested that the chair of the Afro and Afro-American Studies department had offered certain "independent study" classes to athletes and other students that did not meet academic norms.
In the ensuing months and years, intrepid news reporters (aided by at least one campus whistleblower and rabid fans of competing universities) began publishing a series of articles suggesting that there was a broader scheme – and that numerous Chapel Hill students had benefited from it. For example, a newspaper obtained the transcript of one of the school's elite football players and learned that the athlete had performed materially better in certain courses than he had in the rest of his classes. News stories like this dripped and dripped for weeks and months and resulted in mounting calls for the University to do something.
During that time, the University did try to do so something. It commissioned a number of reviews into the matter. But these reviews were stymied by key witnesses (and perpetrators) who either refused to participate or misled them.
The University also appeared to adopt a "foxhole" mentality in responding to the onslaught of negative news. It attempted to use the earlier reports (while well-intentioned, their scopes were limited) as evidence that the problem had been adequately investigated. The University defended against allegations of a larger problem. It believed that problems of the sort alleged – conduct that would shake the fundamental values of a university – could not have occurred at UNC. After all, UNC had "the Carolina Way." Certainly, nothing like academic fraud could occur at Chapel Hill.1
A Change in Strategy
By early 2014, the then-President of the UNC System, Thomas Ross, and then-Chancellor of the Chapel Hill Campus, Carol Folt, knew that the strategy must change. It was no longer feasible to deny what increasing news reports were confirming. President Ross and Chancellor Folt recognized that the institution's integrity was at risk. To preserve that integrity – and to reclaim any that had been lost – they recognized that bold action was necessary. It was time to "rip off the band-aid" and confront what had happened, learn from past mistakes, and make sure it could not happen again. These leaders knew that the University must acknowledge what happened – and that to do so, the institution must first get to the bottom of it.
And so was born what became the definitive investigation into the academic scandal.2 A team of professional investigators were engaged to get to the bottom of what happened. The investigative team was given one direction: do whatever is needed to find out what happened, and do so independently.
Over the course of the next eight months the team poured through millions of emails, conducted more than 125 interviews, analyzed hundreds of thousands of course enrollment and other academic records, and finally determined the true scope of what had occurred. And then, the team prepared a 130-page report that detailed its findings – naming names, citing evidence, quoting emails, and including statistical information. The report concluded that over an 18-year period, more than 3,100 students had taken so-called "paper classes" that did not meet and only required an academic paper that was liberally graded by a department secretary. And, the team found that more than half of the enrollees were student athletes – many of them steered to them by their academic advisors in an attempt to remain eligible to compete.
On October 22, 2014, the University released, completely, the investigative report. It acknowledged and accepted the investigative team's findings. President Ross and Chancellor Folt also took decisive action in light of the report. People were fired. Personnel investigations were undertaken. More than 70 reforms were enacted to ensure that something like this never happened again. And all of it was public.
A few things happen after the University released the investigative report. First, the "drip, drip, drip" of new stories subsided. The daily or weekly onslaught of "bad news" ended. Second, the focus shifted to the consequences of the conduct (potential accrediting body and/or NCAA concerns) rather than the "what happened" questions that had plagued UNC for years. And, third, over time, the University's organizational integrity was fully restored – perhaps more fully because of the decisive and transparent decisions made in early 2014. Years later, the academic scandal is part of the history (not the present) of the storied school. UNC has once again emerged as an academic and athletic powerhouse – winning yet another NCAA basketball tournament – and the academic scandal that once could not be rid of is now solidly in the rear view mirror.
1 Notably, instincts like this are common at high performing institutions and organizations like UNC, or perhaps the FBI or Fortune 500 companies. Organizations often develop blind spots to issues like these. "It can't happen here" becomes a rallying cry. It should not.
2 Joseph Jay, a founding member of Sheppard Mullin's Organizational Integrity Group, was a principal member of the team that conducted the definitive investigation and authored the report in the UNC case.
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