Like many of us, I’ve spent most of the past couple of months quarantined with my significant other. And I discovered that she’s really into those home improvement shows. You know the type: A family lives in the same place for years, realizes their house no longer meets their needs, and they either hire someone for a dramatic remodeling or buy a new place. One particularly common theme is the inevitable discovery, as work is underway on upgrading a house, that certain areas turn out to be even more rotten than originally thought.
It reminded me of the folks running our public university system.
This column originally started as a paean to The Daily Tar Heel, which just won a significant victory against UNC-Chapel Hill over withholding basic information about sexual assaults. After a very public rape scandal in 2013—following well-documented shenanigans in UNC’s student-run honor court—the university went out of its way to avoid disclosing any assault information to the public by claiming such disclosures were prohibited by a federal law known as FERPA. This, it turned out, was a lie: The federal law in question has no such prohibition. And where FERPA doesn’t outlaw releasing the information, the state Supreme Court logically concluded, state policymakers can compel public universities to release it under our Public Records Act.
But the very week the UNC System was having its teeth kicked in by the Supreme Court, yet another scandal popped up. Randy Ramsey, the chairman of the Board of Governors, advertises on his business website that he “is a graduate of Carteret Community College with a degree in marine propulsion.” That same language was copied into his bio on the university’s website.
This, it turned out, was also a lie: Carteret’s marine propulsion program only offers a multi-week certificate.
Reporter Pam Kelley with the Charlotte Ledger contacted the college for information about the discrepancy and learned that Ramsey only has a one-year diploma in marine diesel mechanics rather than the two-year degree he claims. When she contacted the UNC System office, the university tried to cover things up. Ramsey’s bio was quietly scrubbed, then, hours later, the BOG called a special meeting for the very next business day—moving up the election of its officers by two weeks so Ramsey could be re-elected before too many people learned he misrepresents his credentials.
It’s not the only recent scandal involving someone’s qualifications.
In mid-2018, the leading candidate for chancellor at Western Carolina University had the same sort of easily-found-on-Google misrepresentations as Ramsey. When now-former BOG member Tom Fetzer noticed, he hired a screening firm to confirm what Google already showed: The candidate had lied on their academic résumé, something that requires immediate disqualification under the UNC Policy Manual and also happens to be a crime. But rather than acknowledge that the selection committee got hoodwinked, the BOG pilloried Fetzer and the screening firm’s attorney, Peter Romary, with UNC general counsel Tom Shanahan claiming that Fetzer had given Romary stolen university property. (Disclosure: I’ve known Romary since I was on the Board of Governors.)
You might notice this has become something of a pattern for the UNC System. This past summer, as controversy swirled around the former chancellor at East Carolina University being falling-down-drunk in downtown Greenville, Shanahan hired the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson to “investigate.” In emails released months later, we learned the investigators deliberately waited to request security camera footage until roughly 7:00 p.m. on Friday, October 25, just before the tapes were slated to be automatically erased on October 26 under Greenville’s 30-day retention schedule. When the Greenville Fraternal Order of Police hired Romary to get the footage, Shanahan wrote a cease-and-desist letter that he promptly leaked to the media, as university leaders laughably insisted Romary ran an anonymous Gmail account “JohnQPublicAtECU.” This was a lie, too: The actual John Q. Public came to me for legal advice.
Then—literally days later!—we were all treated to what became the months-long saga of #SilentSham, where Chairman Ramsey and the Board of Governors leadership collaborated with Shanahan and that very same Womble Bond Dickinson law firm to manufacture a fake lawsuit, paying the North Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans $74,999 so the SCV could then “sue” UNC to get an additional $2.5 million payoff.
As UNC ponders the impact of its loss at the state Supreme Court and the coronavirus keeps policymakers indoors, they should take their cues from the occasional home improvement show. The next university president needs to, at a minimum, clean house—and if they don’t, the General Assembly should work on a full remodel, with a lot more sunlight.
T. GREG DOUCETTE is a local attorney, criminal justice reform advocate, and host of the podcast #Fsck ’Em All. He continues to be a pain in the UNC System’s ass. Follow him on Twitter @greg_doucette. For a comprehensive listing of media coverage of #SilentSham, visit SilentSham.com.
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