The locus of big news in North Carolina over the past week or two has been North Carolina State University, where Chancellor James Oblinger and Provost Larry Nielsen have resigned after evidence uncovered by Raleigh’s News & Observer made it clear that they were both involved in the invention of a cushy $170,000 job for Mary Easley, the governor’s wife. Trustee chair D. McQueen Campbell III, a rich pal of the governor’s who used to provide free flights and vacations, also resigned after his role in the matter was revealed. Oblinger insisted for weeks that he did not recall knowing anything about the hiring, but a series of e-mails came to light and blew that story, showing that Oblinger was either (a) lying or (b) too feeble-minded to be chancellor of a major university.

Mary Easley, the person at the heart of the hooplah, steadfastly refused to resign, remaining as unresponsive to the public as her husband was during his time as governor. After budget cuts led to the dissolution of the non-essential work she was doing anyway, she was fired. No word yet on how the swchool plans to manage the remaining four years of her contract, and what kind of payout she might get. (Update: NCSU recently announced that the school will offer Easley no additional compensation).

No doubt, the Easleys and many others are unhappy with the N&O’s reporters, who kept asking questions and requesting documents until they uncovered the inside job on Easley’s job. Then they asked more questions, and learned that Neilsen had cut a deal for about $300,000 in severance pay over three years before his salary dropped to his professor’s salary of $154,000 — considerably more than previously announced, and more than NCSU’s policies allow.

(Sidetrack: I’d like to see the N&O do further study of the salaries paid in state universities: is $154,000 — about three times the salary of most professors I know — the norm, or an exception? Do a significant number of teachers in the state university system bring home six-figure salaries? Tax payers have a right to know such things.)

Back to the point — the public wouldn’t have known about any of these high-level shenanigans without the diligent reporting of a crack staff at the News & Observer. That’s one of the reasons I’m happy to pay for my daily subscription and not just freeload from the online version.

Good newspapers may not be too big to fail, but they’re too important to lose.

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