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Scott Mooneyham: UNC’s strategy of delay coming back to haunt

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RALEIGH — The powers-that-be at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill decided some time ago that the slow drip of bad news from their scandal-ridden athletics department was preferable to a full public accounting.

Three years ago later, one has to conclude that their multi-million dollar public relations strategy has been a disastrous failure.

Unable to comprehend that whitewash reviews and empty statements of concern were not going to cut it, campus and UNC system officials can now be certain of only two things: the end is nowhere in sight; they are completely to blame.

That became abundantly clear recently when the New York Times — apparently prompted by the criminal indictment of the professor at the center of the academic side of the scandal; Julius Nyang’oro — decided to write its own front-page takeout on the scandal.

The piece mostly rehashed three years worth of reporting by Dan Kane of The News & Observer of Raleigh.

But even in an age of fractured media coverage and declining newspaper revenues, the Gray Lady of American journalism still wields considerable influence.

CNN and Bloomberg Businessweek followed with their own scathing coverage. Busnessweek writer Paul Barrett, who is developing a penchant for following up his periodical writing with books on the same subjects, promised more coverage.

Meanwhile, the two biggest internal critics at UNC-Chapel Hill, history professor Jay Smith and learning specialist Mary Willingham, revealed their own plans for a book.

With Nyang’oro yet to tell his side of the story, but facing a criminal charge that paints him as orchestrating a scheme of bogus classes and fake grades that kept athletes eligible, that full public accounting is coming. It is only a question of who provides it.

UNC officials could have avoided at least a year of this mess had they conducted a true independent investigation of the matter, let the public know everything that they had found, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Instead, the UNC-Chapel Hill-commissioned investigation, led by former Gov. Jim Martin, created a narrative first — this is an academic scandal and not an athletics scandal — and then presented evidence to support that conclusion.

Left out of that evidence:

• A breakdown of how many athletes and non-athletes were enrolled in each questionable class, and how many athletes and non-athletes received unauthorized grade changes.

• Any look at how the ratio of athletes and non-athletes might have changed over time.

• Any attempt to examine how the scheme began, the process for how bogus courses were created, and the internal workings of how athletics department officials, academic counselors and Nyang’oro’s department may (or may not) have steered athletes to the bogus classes.

The university could have answered those questions in exacting detail.

In the weeks, months or even years to come, the questions will probably still be answered.

The answers just won’t come from sanctioned university reviews, vetted by PR agencies.

Provocative books and magazine spreads will do.

Capitol Press Association

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