John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Two Great Universities Reputations Badly Tarnished: Is There A Common Theme?

December 4, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Over the Thanksgiving holidays I hope you have had more positive things to consider. But for some of my holiday thinking time I couldn’t help but reflecting on the intersection, ostensibly coincidental, of the troubles of two great US public, flagship universities: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Of course, these are not only two of the greatest universities in the US, but the world.

One of them is very close to me geographically speaking as a resident of North Carolina—about five hours east of me and its recent troubles are yielding lots of unfavorable local press. I refer to the discovery that more than 3000 students, many of them athletes, had received academic credit for bogus courses, which were really sham courses for which the students did no academic work. The awareness of these ghost courses was known within the University for years but no actions were taken to curtail the practices.

And then much more recently a story in Rolling Stone reported on a gang rape of a female student in 2012 by a group of fraternity affiliated males in their “house” at the University of Virginia. If ever there was a case of a house not being a home, this is it. As the story has unfolded the University has acknowledged that it has no history of dispensing expulsion as a penalty for perpetrators of sexual assault; and that it appears that the University has taken a stronger stance against violators of the University’s famous honor code regarding academic integrity than it has for male students who sexually assault female students.

There is already a great deal of commentary on these two situations. What can I add to this? What would I be asking my students to consider as they strive to understand how this could be happening in two such venerable institutions?

In both there are the themes of the excesses of a male dominated higher education culture and the tolerance for behaviors that violate codes of conduct that apply to others than male social organization members or male athletes. Both reflect the traditional values system of the residential, traditional aged undergraduate student American university. Both illustrate the power of organizations created and adored by males: the football, basketball, fraternity culture. At one university we see the corrupting force of the need to maintain athletic eligibility debasing the academic standards of an entire academic department, the related academic advising system, co-dependent staff in the Athletics department, and even spreading to students who were not varsity athletes. In the other we see the naked (pun intended) power of a highly privileged male group whose traditional rituals for subordinating women were part of a culture that had become, in effect, untouchable, due to its powerful backers in the University’s larger adult community of supporters.

I suspect that few of us higher educators with any intimate familiarity of the residential university culture are surprised in the slightest by these revelations. But in my case, I was a faculty advisor to a social fraternity at the University of South Carolina for sixteen years. Now my boys were not angels but I never had reason to believe they engaged in such practices. I cannot say the same for the relationship between the Athletic Department and some of our “academic” practices. What surprises me though is our continuing tolerance for these egregious violations of our ostensible values. What has made us so tolerant? So willing to look the other way? So inclined to overlook these violations of our most important values.

Will these incidents lead to substantive change? Perhaps at these two institutions. I saw at my own institution how sensational public scandal could and did change a wide range of institutional practices. But these incidents go way beyond these two great universities.

I have concluded that what we need is significant Federal intervention to secure the physical protection of vulnerable students whose safety we have not adequately protected. I see this as a matter of basic civil rights and look to the Federal government as the protector of last resort. While relatively few students are in danger of group sanctioned sexual assault, far more students are in academic environments where federal financial aid monies support a system of whereby students are not held to the same academic standards as a function of athlete versus non athlete status. This was clearly not Congressional intent when the federal financial aid system was established and I am hopeful that we will be held accountable for making our standards apply equally to all. Yes, that’s right: I want to call in the Feds and the regional accreditors. I don’t see ourselves getting our house in order on our own. Just as in the 16 years between Brown vs Board of Education from 1954-1970 we have been pursuing a philosophy of gradualism. And it hasn’t been sufficient.

So what is your commentary to your students going to sound like?

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