It wasn’t the sort of high definition we expect from video these days, but the images of East Carolina University’s chancellor were unmistakable. First, he loses a flip-flop, taking a few steps before he notices, then turning around to put it back on. Stumbling down a street where he nearly walks into a pole. Steadying himself with his car door to avoid falling into the street. Then driving away while his car straddles multiple lanes.

The surveillance videos were the coda to the tenure of ECU interim chancellor Dan Gerlach, who had been placed on administrative leave in late September after photos appeared on social media of him at a bar in a compromising position with a female patron. Following a month-long public relations campaign—complete with an #IStandWithDan hashtag and reinstatement petition—UNC system president Bill Roper informed the ECU Board of Trustees on October 25 that Gerlach would be back on the job the following week.

The next day, Gerlach resigned.

The surprise resignation was apparently prompted by the revelation that the surveillance videos still existed and would be made public. 

Following the initial kerfuffle over the bar photos, the UNC system hired a private law firm to “investigate”: Womble Bond Dickinson, the bluest of blue-chip law firms, with a commensurate hourly billing rate. Subsequent news coverage revealed that investigators were notified on October 14 that the surveillance video existed. Yet the investigators didn’t file a request to release the footage until nearly two weeks later—after another attorney had already obtained a court order for it.

Why the delay? Well, you see, back in 2016, a bipartisan majority of legislators passed HB 972, a bill removing police video (like surveillance camera footage) from our Public Records Act and directing law enforcement to keep it in accordance with a retention schedule set out by the state archives. 

The new retention period for that footage? Just thirty days.

The taxpayer-financed “investigators” hired by the UNC system were hoping to run out the clock and wait for the footage to be deleted.

This practice of looking the other way—rather than ensuring the accountability of the public servants responsible for educating the sons and daughters of North Carolina—seems to be a recurring pattern with the university these days.

The man Gerlach replaced, Cecil Staton, had misrepresented his credentials when he was hired and did so poorly as chancellor that students and alumni alike clamored for his removal. The 2018 search for a replacement chancellor at Western Carolina University imploded when it was discovered that the “top candidate” had lied on their résumé. Yet rather than be concerned that their vetting process missed those misrepresentations, the Board of Governors was instead outraged that a member tried to investigate on his own. 

Allegations of nepotism led to the resignation of the chancellor at Fayetteville State University “to spend time with family.” And grave problems at UNC-Chapel Hill’s hospitals—back when they were overseen by the same Bill Roper who now runs the entire seventeen-institution UNC system—led to so many dead children that it prompted a multipart New York Times exposé.

When I served on the UNC Board of Governors a decade ago, then-President Erskine Bowles repeatedly emphasized the need for accountability and transparency in the system’s operations. He and I frequently disagreed; he once called me “an impudent little shit” on a phone call for opposing one of his initiatives. But Bowles was truly exemplary at staying focused on the things that mattered: ensuring an accessible and affordable high-quality education for the sons and daughters of North Carolina, as required by our state’s constitution.

That caliber of leadership is needed now more than ever, as the university faces a legislature that is more skeptical of how it operates—and of higher education more broadly—than at any time in the state’s history. 

This recent practice of instead ignoring problems and hoping they’ll go away on their own—or myopically playing shoot-the-messenger political games—is counterproductive. 

One hopes the current members of the Board of Governors will keep their eye on the ball.

T. GREG DOUCETTE is a local criminal defense attorney, justice reform advocate, and host of the podcast #Fsck ’Em All. Follow him on Twitter @greg_doucette.

NEXT WEEK: ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS, the author of M Archive: After the End of the World, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, and co-editor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines.

Comment on this story at Correction: The original version of this story misstated Cecil Staton’s first name. 

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