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The price of prestige: What drove the UNC Charlotte administration to hire an accused war criminal?

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Self made man statue

In my junior year of high school, the University of Chicago invited me to participate in one of its summer sessions for gifted high schoolers. This three-week legal studies course gave me and my family a case of Ivy League fever. My uncle took me on tours of Stanford and Berkeley. My aunt sent me photos of UChicago’s campus. My neighbors, who bleed Carolina blue, wished me luck on my alumni interview for Duke. They expected that I would settle with a “good” school: hopefully with some Nobel Prize-winning professors, probably with a great football team, certainly with gobs of privilege. At the very least, I’d end up at UNC.

Neither of those things happened. To their surprise, I chose UNC Charlotte. For a long time, I struggled to explain why I turned down the other, more renowned schools. I couldn’t place exactly why these “good” schools felt so wrong for me. It wasn’t until I actually started college that I could put it into words.

I grew up in Pittsboro, a very small town about 15 miles south of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. I spent my teen years trolling record shops, bookstores and art co-ops off Rosemary Street and Franklin Street. These progressive bubbles were situated among the most hideous and longstanding forms of white supremacy and hatred. In order to get to the Morehead Planetarium, I had to walk past Silent Sam. I regularly spotted people sitting and standing on a monument to enslaved workers. Lecture halls and dorms are named after antisemitic demagogues, slave owners and terrorists who spearheaded mass lynchings. Sure, by the time I reached college age, I had already gotten to know the area better than most UNC Chapel Hill students, which made the prospect of four more years pretty boring. But I had also learned what many hadn’t until they had already matriculated: UNC Chapel Hill will never, ever change. It is what it is, forever. Unless a bunch of extremely courageous individuals are very, very lucky and somehow force the entire world to see it for what it is, on the whole, UNC Chapel Hill will remain as prestigious and hateful as it wants to be. As it’s always been.

If the prestige of attending a flagship school with a kickass basketball team required the daily affront of its disgusting history, then I didn’t want it. UNC Charlotte seemed different. Its campus culture certainly wasn’t as strong, it wasn’t as well known and its mascot had a sort of uncanny look in its eyes, but the student body felt special. My classmates weren’t just honors kids: they were single mothers, nontraditional students, first-generation college students, immigrants, working class folks, people of color, queer and transgender scholars, disabled and neurodivergent individuals. And it didn’t feel like we were in a promo video about campus diversity. Because our school was so young, because we -- and by extension it -- were so often underdogs, it felt like we were able to write our University’s history. We had the potential to create a campus culture we could be proud of. One that wouldn’t rob marginalized people of their right to learn without fear. One that opposed business as usual, and fought for what was just. 

We were, in short, naive. Because I quickly learned that to the Chancellor, the Provost and other high-ranking university officials, we were and always had been “customers.” Unlike our student body, our administration did not share the fire of reinventing education as we know it. Instead, they sought to replicate the worst aspects of the typical UNC System experience. They raised their own salaries but neglected to pay adjuncts and service employees. They touted student leadership but refused to allow meaningful student representation on the Board of Trustees. They brayed about diversity but looked the other way when marginalized students suffered due to campus policies. 

And now, they’ve hired John Bogdan. The former warden of Guantanamo Bay. A man who oversaw the surveillance of privileged client-attorney discussions, abusive genital searches, IV force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike and a host of other human rights violations. Bogdan shot rubber bullets at inmates peacefully protesting living conditions. He confiscated all mementos and personal belongings and forced inmates into isolation cells, taking special care to keep the lights on and the prison freezing cold at all times. His job was to ensure the constant torment of detainees. In an interview with News editor Megan Bird, Bogdan said that release was “not a decision of innocence or guilt.” But it’s clear that the 86 prisoners cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay -- indeed, everyone who landed in that Kafkaesque hellhole of a prison -- were nothing but guilty in his eyes. He knowingly and intentionally did everything in his power to drain the personhood out of human beings -- a significant portion of whom had never committed a crime in the first place. 

John Bogdan is the reason I turned my back on the Ivy Leagues and the flagship schools. I read about hateful policies at UChicago, heard horror stories about the administration from my friends at UNC Chapel Hill, became intimately familiar with how foul the most “prestigious” schools really were. So I chose UNC Charlotte. And even after I learned of how foul this school can really be, my conscience was somewhat buoyed by the fact that most of its shitty aspects are not singularly, uniquely awful. If you thought about it, it wasn’t nearly as bad as everybody else.

This is singularly, uniquely awful. And UNC Charlotte is unrepentant. They know damn well that they’re the only UNC System school with an alleged* cold-blooded war criminal on its payroll. Bogdan made sure of that: he put Guantanamo Bay on his LinkedIn profile. His conspicuous cruelty is the point. Whatever tired myth the Chancellor trots out about Bonnie Cone, no matter how many times he plasters “We Are All Niners” on a train, our administration is only interested in becoming what “distinguished universities” always have been: the goddamn worst. 

With all that being said, I didn’t write this article to be a downer. I wrote this article because I am angry. Righteously, furiously, endlessly angry. I am burning up with rage because the vast majority of our student body has taken the bait. Instead of fighting tooth and nail to get John Bogdan off our campus, here we are squabbling about all the cues of “distinguished universities” that we lack. Should we change the name? Should we fix our sports program? Should we rethink our branding? 

To an extent, I can’t really blame any of us. The UNC Charlotte experience was always going to be a process of invention. We don’t have the privilege of inheriting a strong campus culture -- like the Self-Made Man by Fretwell, we are constantly building and rebuilding ourselves from the ground up. But the obsession with the surface-level cues of a renowned university is really just that: surface-level. The key to creating a university unlike any other is not through improving the football program. We have to dig deeper. We have to ask ourselves what we value more: the shallow aesthetics of prestige, or an administration that won’t shake evil by the hand and offer him an associate vice chancellorship. 

With that in mind, I say this: prestige won’t save you. When John Bogdan goes home at night, when he takes off the green tie and the veneer of congeniality, when he’s lying in the dark with only his soul to answer to, prestige won’t wash the blood off his hands. Prestige won’t save us from another tuition and fees hike; it won’t pay our professors or our janitors; it won’t do anything except morally bankrupt the place we call home. 


*Editor's Note: When the story was originally published, this sentence excluded the word "alleged." It has since been added to ensure accuracy. We apologize for the error.

John Bogdan

John Bogdan.


(7) comments

D Lynn Robinson

It appears as if propaganda of diversity caused the writer to attain some delusional sense of history. Referring to someone as a war criminal because one does not support the politics of the other is a bit of a stretch. Referring to the history of UNC Chapel Hill in such a derogatory manner is also out of line. Perhaps the writer would have been better off in an online program somewhere so that he may pretend to live in his version of a perfect world and to save himself from the daily opportunities to be offended.


While I agree - strongly agree - with most everything written here, that's not why I'm commenting. Rather, I wanted to say how impressive and strong the writing is, how well expressed these ideas are. I graduated from UNC Charlotte almost 10 years ago (PhD) and my job now is, surprisingly, mostly writing. Emails, letters of recommendation, technical articles, grant proposals, essays, marketing material - I do it all, and all the time. So I am speaking with some authority when I say: the quality of Nikolai's writing is incredibly high.

I learned to write in college. Not at UNC Charlotte, but a small, liberal arts school. When I started there, I was terrible. I had a few good instincts, but no craft at all. By the time I finished my four years I was much improved. But I was just getting started.

Writing is something that ... well, you not only have to practice to get better at it, but - as long as you DO practice, you DO get better. Every writer can get better, in fact. And if you do it often, you will, and for the rest of your life.

Writing skills are not needed for every job out there, but I believe they can enhance any career. These skills open doors that, for some, are needlessly closed. My PhD is in computer science for god's sake.

Anyway, enough soapboxing. I write all the time now, for my job especially, and I'm very good at it. And I just wanted to drop in to say: I can recognize the deep skill and craft that Nikolai brings here, and I am deeply impressed. Shocked, really, that someone so young can do this so well. The contrast with my own skills and maturity level at that age is stark.

I look forward to seeing his continued success. Cheers.


This article, published last month, gives additional background info about Colonel Bogdan and his tenure at Gitmo and elsewhere:


This is a powerful and beautifully written op-ed. Your obviously poured your heart and soul into it ... which produces the best writing (and journalism). Thanks for your courageous stance, which should be emulated.


Great article. I am a UNCC Graduate, class of 2004. A little different than you I am a Bative Charlottean but I have been a lifelong Tarheel and every family member with a College Degree attended UNC. I do love Chapel Hill for the good things, but like many places the romance is there because I didn’t live it everyday. It was Dean Smith and his ethical standard that I enjoyed most and I looked past so much of the negative and continue to do that today. I was a late bloomer, I started work after high school and became a firefighter a few later which was my lifelong dream, many say it was my calling. I returned to college twice out of necessity. The promotional requirements changed and initially required a two year degree for fire captain and then a few years later a four year degree to test for battalion chief. There were a few distance Ed programs out there in 2001 when I started back but I knew I didn’t have the discipline so I chose UNCC. A 30 year old engaging on the University Campus for the first time. I will keep it as short as possible but what you said was as right back then. The diverse group of people that were the student body taught me more than any class. I learned more in that campus about human beings and about the world than I had in the previous 30 years. I don’t know if I would have appreciated it at 18. Those years opened doors to people that I never would have interacted with on a meaningful level otherwise. My parents gave me a great foundation of treat all people with respect and dignity, my time in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and a diverse neighborhood growing up taught me to appreciate the differences and enjoy the similarities but UNCC allowed 18 to 70 year olds to interact and learn from each other. We were all peers and I have not heard many with that College experience. I am a better person because of my years at UNCC. As for the dilemma that you have discussed it is not singular to there. We find ourselves in a society where bosses don’t follow the rules yet terminate underlings for the same rule violation and then make a donation to a charity and everyone applauds them. Evil takes many shapes in our world but turning a blind eye to wrong doing for those in authoritative roles in something that has hit close to home for me as a reoccurring theme. You can not lead if you have no integrity. All human beings are deserving of respect no matter if friend or foe. I believe this in my heart and I have seen some horrible things in my life. We can not claim to be a nation of the free if we do not act in a manner which is consistent with the very principles of what Freedom means. I hope you are successful in whatever life brings you. I apologize for the many errors I am sure you will find in this response as I am sitting at Rehab with my Dad today and am on my phone.

Shane Nantz

UNCC Class of 2004

West Mecklenburg Class of 1990

Gabe Cartagena

It’s time to fire John Bogdan. We are better than this.

Gabe Cartagena

It’s time to fire John Bogdan.

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