Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Time to Look in the Mirror

It’s like one of those movies where the husband dies in a plane crash and the wife learns he had a secret life—another identity, a second wife and kids, etc. The world she thought she knew is turned upside down. Trust is broken. Were friends complicit in the lies or as stunned as she was? Can she ever love again? 

That’s pretty much how I feel after the last in a series of scandals emanating from my workplace, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

I fell head-over-heels for UNC (no pun intended) the first day I interviewed here in 1998. The grounds were gorgeous, the people were friendly, the students bright, the opportunities abundant. I am an unmitigated sports nut, so I have been in blue heaven for 13 years, even in the losing seasons. I incorporated UNC as part of my identity, proud of the work I did for my School and for other units on campus. I have a wardrobe constructed around Carolina blue. As a more cynical colleague says, I drank the Kool-Aid. 

I am not na├»ve to the fallibility of individuals or organizations. I have been an administrator in non-profit, academic, and public institutions. I serve as an expert witness in professional negligence cases. I write about ethics and moral courage. If anyone should have been inured to the possibilities for failure, it would have been me. So how come I am gob-smacked by the revelations this week that our VC for Advancement misused his budget for travel with his girlfriend (the parent of a famous athlete and a UNC development employee whose job the VC appeared to create)?  It’s not like this was a surprise—even people as low on the food chain as I am knew parts of this story. Maybe I am just fatigued at waking up each morning to find some new, shameful revelation about a place I love, a place I thought could do better. This drama follows a transcript scandal that followed an academic scandal that followed a football scandal. I’m not even counting the lovesick professor-turned-drug-mule scandal. 

I struggle to make sense of it and to search for an answer. There is not one bad apple to tie all of these humiliations together. There is not (I don’t think! But what do I know!?) a culture of corner-cutting and side-dealing that would have predicted these events. Campus leaders are smart, hard-working, accomplished, and dedicated to UNC. Faculty, staff, students, and alumni are not shy about speaking up about issues large and small. The checks and balances that assure integrity seem to be in place, but clearly they are not. Right now I am not equipped to deconstruct these events for any kind of useful analysis on governance and ethics or even to begin to answer the question why. It is all too close and still unfolding. I am still in the shock stage of the phases of grief, though moving quickly past denial to anger, mourning our lost reputation and my lost trust, waiting for the next shoe to drop.