Carol L. Folt had never been tasked with overseeing a big-time college athletic department when she arrived on the campus of North Carolina in July 2013.
It was North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham’s job to fill her in, and in the months before she officially began her tenure as the university’s chancellor, there were two decades’ worth of drama to discuss. North Carolina had gone through several internal reviews looking into allegations of academic fraud involving Tar Heel athletes being funneled into “no-show” classes that required students to complete just one paper to pass — an embarrassing situation that many on the school’s academic side felt remained unresolved.
The NCAA had made camp there and slapped the football program with a postseason ban, a scholarship reduction and a three-year probation after finding that a tutor had completed coursework for players and that improper benefits had been provided by agents.
It was a lot to take in for Folt, who had only been the interim president at Dartmouth University of the Ivy League. But Cunningham, who took over as athletic director in November 2011, expressed confidence that it was in the rearview mirror.
“We both thought it was over,” Cunningham said when reached by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday after USC announced Folt as its new president.
North Carolina’s top administrators, it turned out, may have just been wishing their problems away. Within six months of Folt’s arrival, a professor in the African- and Afro-American Studies was indicted for allegedly accepting $12,000 for teaching a class that didn’t exist. In February 2014, North Carolina commissioned an independent investigation by former U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Wainstein. By the end of June, the NCAA had announced a second look into Tar Heel athletics.
“It was a challenging time to say the least,” Cunningham said. “We all wanted to bring closure to it, and then you’re trying to trace it all the way back to, how does something like this begin?”
The hiring of Folt ended an extended search for the successor to C.L. “Max” Nikias, who resigned last May. A feather in Folt’s cap from Day 1 will be that she has experience dealing with a major athletic department in turmoil.
But, for as complex as the athletics situation as North Carolina became under her watch, the mess she’s inheriting at USC could be even more challenging to navigate.
Last week’s indictments announced by federal investigators in the college admissions bribery scheme included two athletics employees who were immediately fired by the school — senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and renowned water polo coach Jovan Vavic. Former USC women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin and a former women’s soccer assistant coach, Laura Janke, were also indicted. The government alleged in a 200-page complaint that these employees accepted bribes for getting unqualified non-athletes into USC through the athletic admissions process.
Unlike when Folt took the North Carolina chancellor position, there is no pretense that USC’s legal issues will be over any time soon. And it is too early to tell what the fallout will be and how far up the chain of command the athletic department’s transgressions will reach.
Yet, Folt, who resigned her post at North Carolina in January, still took on the USC job.
She inherits an athletic director in Lynn Swann who is under fire, not for keeping Clay Helton as head football coach after a 5-7 season but for not having a procedure in place to check the power Heinel allegedly held over the athletic admissions process.
Based on Folt’s actions at North Carolina, USC observers should not expect any swift movements to appease the most vocal of the fan base.
“I suspect that Carol will do a lot of listening,” said Dr. Lowry Caudill, a North Carolina board of trustees member who was chair of the board when Folt began at the school, “and it will take her some time to come up to speed, to understand the issues, the background and just the culture and history of the university.”
Wainstein’s eight-month investigation into North Carolina’s alleged academic improprieties revealed a “woeful lack of oversight” that helped more than 3,100 students — half of them athletes — over nearly 20 years enroll in and pass classes they never attended. Folt fired nine employees in response but took heat for initially not releasing their names.
“I know the Carolina community will find these findings sobering,” Folt said then. “This never should have been allowed to happen.”
Once the Wainstein report came out, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, which gives accreditation to universities, placed the school on a year-long probationary period. In that process, Folt had admitted to the group that North Carolina had committed academic fraud.
But the school still had to deal with the NCAA infractions investigation, which would require different legal defense tactics to achieve the desired result: That North Carolina, particularly its powerhouse men’s basketball program, avoid major sanctions that could damage the university’s brand where it counted the most.
North Carolina understood a loophole in the NCAA's bylaws that stated a school had to find itself in violation of academic fraud in order for the NCAA to punish the school. Despite North Carolina’s admission to SACS, the university switched course and told the NCAA that it was not guilty of academic fraud because the classes in question were not created specifically for athletes and were taken just as often by non-athletes.
“She turned around and, with a straight face, told the NCAA that UNC had not committed academic fraud after all, that it had been a ‘typo’ in communications with our accrediting agency,” said Jay Smith, a North Carolina history professor who co-wrote the book “Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports.”
“That was a stunning act of hypocrisy that she and her team were willing to carry out. The whole thing was just disorienting in its dishonesty. She lost the respect of a lot of people when that happened.”
North Carolina’s defense worked perfectly. The NCAA did not bring further sanctions against the school despite the evidence found in the Wainstein report and the school’s apology to SACS.
Folt’s critics felt she failed at her mission as chancellor by protecting athletics at the expense of the school’s academic reputation.
“USC athletics has every reason to be delighted by this appointment,” Smith said. “They’re probably doing handstands over at USC athletics, because she has proven herself to be an enabler of the worst forms of corruption of which big-time sports are associated. She is a cheerleader, not a reformer, and the folks at USC athletics will be very pleased with how she conducts herself.”
For every critic of Folt in Chapel Hill, there is an advocate who feels she was thrown into a no-win situation and did what was in the best interest of the school.
“I was there, I was involved with her, and she certainly didn’t do anything that was unethical in any way to protect the program at the expense of doing the right thing,” said Chuck Duckett, the vice chair of the North Carolina board of trustees. “I don’t agree with that [criticism] in any way, shape or form, and I’m not an athletics at all costs guy. It’s a strange case. We can dissect the Carolina case, spend two days talking about it. I think she’s the right kind of person to help Southern Cal during this time.”
Cunningham, Caudill and Duckett described Folt as an advocate for athletes and a big sports fan in general. They said she was just as likely to be seen at the game of a non-revenue sport as a football or basketball game.
Cunningham said he had an open dialogue with Folt about what was going on his department. They met once a month, he said, and Cunningham felt he could reach her any time if he needed her opinion.
Through their five-plus years leading North Carolina through a humbling time, Cunningham felt he and Folt emerged better for it.
“It was frustrating for all of us that it took that long,” Cunningham said. “We all learned a lot from it, and we believe we have much better policies and systems in place.”