The collapse of the USSR and the unraveling of UNC-Chapel Hill share some common characteristics.
In both cases, few saw it coming. One moment the Soviet Union was gesturing menacingly; the next thing you knew, the highest profile communist nation in the world had imploded.
As for UNC, the school was swaggering and confident two years ago. Today, the nation’s oldest public university is staggering, beset with a host of problems, including criminal charges against a department head and the initiation of an expensive internal investigation. (Here is my interview with Holden Thorp that recounts the early stages of the UNC debacle.)
The USSR and UNC share another key similarity: Both operated behind a wall of secrecy. As the Soviets rattled sabers and played the global geo-political game with verve, the closed and decaying society within its borders was cloaked from public view. At UNC, what went on within its walls was protected from scrutiny by muscular public relations and a conspiracy of silence.
The press has made tiny inroads, but alumni, concerned about the disintegration of the school, are shut out of their own alma mater by the association director who has ignored old boys and girls who asked for a forum to air the problems they sense are tarnishing their degrees.
While Russia has never been an open society, UNC has. Academic freedom flourished at the school for nearly 200 years before it was the victim of its own Bolshevik Revolution, led by radical scholars in the late 1970s. Their goal was to destroy the Western tradition in the university in retribution for its racism, chauvinism and imperialism - a manifesto eerily similar to Soviet “active measures” disinformation against democratic Western nations.
At UNC, the traditional liberal arts curriculum was marginalized and eventually evaporated. Traditionalist professors found themselves ostracized and slandered. Administrators cowered and did nothing, fearing that the radical scholars would demonize them too. Today, applicants who do not toe the party line need not apply.
As in the USSR, the campus purges were not televised, to borrow from jazz singer Gil Scott-Heron. Nor are the inner workings of the present-day apparat in Chapel Hill. But the public is realizing the campus is an impenetrable redoubt, contemptuous of outside criticism. The UNC samizdat, like Soviet Russia’s, has been revealed as a carefully tended myth, portending that it too will be consigned to the dustbin of history.