One Takes the High Road, Most Take the Low Road

Two recent stories about colleges in North Carolina offer despair and hope about higher education.

First, the bad news. North Carolina State University’s athletic director, Debbie Yow, just fired the school’s football coach, Tom O'Brien, because of his 40-35 won-loss record. It seems the school has visions of winning national championships: Yow said she wants a more “aggressive” recruiter, ostensibly to bring in “Alabama type talent.”

Down the road at hated rival UNC-Chapel Hill, a similar push to upgrade the football team resulted in a reputation-killing scandal that has brought down the football coach, athletic director, an academic department head, the vice chancellor for university advancement, and even the school chancellor.

It’s pretty much a given in college football that, to compete at the highest level, rules must be bent or broken to admit star players and maintain their eligibility. O’Brien, while not the winningest coach ever to prowl the sidelines, at least kept State competitive on the field without any serious scandals off of it. He was highly popular and respected (and he beat Chapel Hill five straight times!); his firing for not bringing home enough trophies suggests skewed priorities.

In fact, coming so soon after the UNC-Chapel Hill fiasco, it suggests that academia in North Carolina is locked into some sort of “race to the ethical bottom.”

But then a story appeared about tiny Belmont Abbey, a private Catholic college near Charlotte. Belmont Abbey lowered its tuition by $9,000 a year—not because it is losing enrollment and trying to attract more students, but as a matter of principle to keep a Catholic higher education affordable. The school has actually gained enrollment in the last few years, and the most likely reason is president Bill Thierfelder’s well-publicized principled stands against the status quo. His actions have raised the school’s profile and attracted both students and donors.

The first time he challenged conventional thinking at Belmont Abbey also involved sports—and he had to get rid of a few coaches himself. 

But it wasn’t their failure to win games that cost them their jobs. It was instead their failure to buy into Thierfelder’s campaign to subordinate athletics to Belmont Abbey’s educational and moral missions. Thierfelder wasn’t against competition; he was an NCAA high jump champion back in the 1970s. He just didn’t want his coaches cursing out players, encouraging poor sportsmanship, and bending the rulebook to win. 

It may be that the real hope for higher education is to find the small gems hidden among the giant rhinestones and chunks of fool’s gold.

Posted by: Jay Schalin

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