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The Carol Folt playbook

By Joe Asch
Posted Tuesday, January 21, 2014

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Chapel Hill, NC - In the UNC’s Mary Willingham student-athlete-literacy scandal, people at Dartmouth recognize that Chancellor Carol Folt is working from her usual playbook. Rather than facing serious revelations head on, she is yet again just running a PR damage control effort.

Here's how it works: first the administration ignores the problem; then it denies that the problem even exists, a denial that is wrapped in laudatory remarks about the institution; and then a full-on offensive aims to discredit and punish the whistleblower. Finally, some type of large endeavor is announced with the goal of taking the school's focus off the entire subject.

Today in Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham is enduring the same treatment that Carol Folt meted out at Dartmouth for years.

For example, in early 2011, Dartmouth undergraduate Andrew Lohse approached several senior Dartmouth administrators to describe the abusive and dangerous hazing going on at his fraternity. After many months had passed, and the deans had done nothing with the information, in January 2012, Lohse published an extensive column in the student newspaper: he wrote that he was "forced to swim in a kiddie pool full of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen, and rotten food products; forced to eat an omelet made of vomit; forced to chug cups of vinegar until I was afraid that I would vomit blood like one of my fellow pledges did; forced to inhale nitrous oxide; degraded psychologically on a daily basis...," etc.

For over five weeks after the column’s publication, then-Provost Folt and then-President Jim Kim (now President of the World Bank) avoided comment to the Dartmouth community about the problem. Their underlings, however, ferociously impugned Lohse's motives and credibility. They and several members of the Board of Trustees questioned whether Lohse had made up his narrative, and extensive background information was circulated about Lohse's past disciplinary problems.

After the column came out, Dartmouth's Undergraduate Judicial Affairs department charged the brothers in Lohse's fraternity house, and Lohse himself, too, with hazing. Yes, you read that correctly: the whistleblower was also charged with the crime. Of course, the fraternity brothers clammed up tight, and as the administration undoubtedly expected, Lohse himself refused to offer any evidence against them, given that the same information could also be used against him. Lo and behold, eventually all charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

However the national press did not give up on the story, and Rolling Stone magazine sent veteran reported Janet Reitman to campus. When her lengthy, embarrassing story hit the street two months after Lohse's disclosures were published, Folt and Kim were ready.

In crises like the current one, Folt spends her time and effort on window-dressing

Five days later, accompanied by full-page ads in the New York Times and other major newspapers, the re-naming of Dartmouth's medical school was announced. No specific gift was mentioned from donors Audrey and Ted Geisel (who you will know better as Dr. Seuss) -- their gift is only a bequest that will occur when both have passed away -- and no explanation was offered for the timing of the name change.

In fact, the announcement came as a surprise to everyone on the medical school’s faculty. Clearly the event took place only to distract attention from the stomach-turning hazing controversy.

More or less the same sequence of events has occurred at Dartmouth under Folt’s watch in relation to any number of past incidents: student protests about the school's second-in-the-Ivies, $60,201 annual cost of tuition, room and board; the faculty's multiple rejections of Kim and Folt's accounting of how costs were cut during the financial crisis; and widespread anger over class oversubscriptions, class crowding and Dartmouth's reconfigured, expensive dining plans; and so on.

Though Carol Folt has a glittering resumé of positions held at Dartmouth, actual achievement over the decades has been utterly lacking.

However, what has never taken place as part of these controversies is anything fundamental, any changes of substance that get to the root of the various problems. Though Carol Folt has a glittering resumé of positions held at Dartmouth, actual achievement over the decades has been utterly lacking.

It’s not hard to map the Lohse scandal at Dartmouth onto Mary Willingham’s experience at UNC. She elicited no reaction when she first approached the administration with her data about poor student-athlete reading levels. When she went public with her concerns, the administration denied having the information. Recently Provost Jim Dean and Chancellor Folt called her work a “travesty” and said that it was not up to the immaculate standards of Carolina research. Finally, Willingham had her research privileges revoked on the grounds that she had violated student confidentiality. All that is missing now is a big announcement from Chancellor Folt designed to distract the UNC community from Willingham’s concerns about education.

In crises like the current one, Folt spends her time and effort on window-dressing, and she makes sure that anyone complaining about a problem is hit so hard that the person complaining, and all future whistleblowers, too, think twice about bringing problems to light. It’s happening again.

Today in Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham is enduring the same treatment that Carol Folt meted out at Dartmouth for years. And Willingham’s well-founded complaints are being covered up. Congratulations, UNC! Your school is almost in the Ivy League.

Joe Asch is a 1979 graduate of Dartmouth College and a 1983 graduate of the Yale Law School. He writes, a daily blog about Dartmouth College.

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The Carol Folt playbook
A different view of the newest UNC Chapel Hill chancellor, Carol Folt, than you see in the Carolina Alumni review.

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How Carol Folt works