As a reading specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham met athletes who told her they had never read a book and didnt know what a paragraph was. She said she saw diagnostic tests that showed they were unable to do college-level work.
But many athletes stayed eligible to play sports, she said, because the academic support system provided improper help and tolerated plagiarism. When she raised questions or made an objection to what she saw as cheating, she said, she saw no one take her concerns seriously.
Willingham, who still works at the university but not with athletes, said she lodged complaints at least two years before UNCs academic problems erupted into scandal. She channeled some of her frustration into a thesis for her masters degree, on the corrupting influence of big-money sports on university academics.
But after attending the recent funeral of former UNC system President Bill Friday, a prominent critic of revenue-driven college sports, and seeing that no one within the program was willing to admit that they had been aware of a problem, Willingham decided it was time to go public.
In a series of interviews with The (Raleigh) News & Observer, she said there were numerous people in the academic support program who knew that what was going on was wrong, but they looked the other way, helping to protect one of the nations most storied athletic programs.
Among her assertions:
• The no-show classes that had been offered by the chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies date back at least to the time Willingham began working for the support program in 2003. Commonly known within the program as paper classes, they were billed as lecture classes, but the classes never met.
Willingham learned of them when she was asked to work with a female athlete on a paper. Willingham said the paper was a cut-and-paste job, but when she raised questions about it, staff members told her not to worry. The student later received a grade of B or better.
• Members of the mens basketball team took no-show classes until the fall semester of 2009, when the team was assigned a new academic counselor. The new counselor was appalled to learn of the classes and wanted no part of them. University records show the enrollments stopped that semester for basketball players, while they continued for football players.
• Numerous football and basketball players came to the university with academic histories that showed them incapable of doing college-level work, especially at one of the nations top public universities. Diagnostic tests administered by the university confirmed their lack of preparedness and also identified learning disabilities that would need extensive remediation to put them on a successful academic path.
Some athletes told Willingham they had never read a book or written a paragraph, but they were placed in no-show classes that required a 20-page paper and came away with grades of B or better.
• Roughly five years ago, Bobbi Owen, the senior associate dean who had oversight of the academic support program, sought to rein in the number of independent studies offered by the African studies department, which by then averaged nearly 200 a year. Independent studies required no class time and often not much more than a term paper; they were popular with football and basketball players.
University records show that the number of independent study enrollments plummeted in the past five years compared with the previous five. Those courses have also been cited for a lack of academic integrity.
Willingham, 51, said most of the athletes in the nonrevenue sports are capable of doing college-level work. But lowered academic standards for the football players and mens basketball players known as special admits brought in athletes who lacked the academic ability, while still being expected to devote at least 20 hours a week to their sports. She called that a dynamic destined to produce cheating. The special admissions go at least as far back as the early 1990s.
There are serious literacy deficits, and they cannot do the course work here, Willingham said. And if you cannot do the course work here, how do you stay eligible? You stay eligible by some department, some professor, somebody who gives you a break. Thats everywhere across the country. Here it happened with paper classes. Theres no question.
An easy path
Willingham is the first person from inside the academic support program to go public with details about its operations. Other information has come through records released by the university or obtained by The N&O from other sources. The university has confirmed that there were at least 54 such no-show classes in the past four years that didnt meet and required only a term paper at the end.
They were largely filled with athletes. Other records have identified two other no-show classes and suggest the classes go back at least a dozen years and were known within the support program as an easy path for athletes.
Plagiarism also has emerged as an issue with these classes and with another class athletes took. Some internal records from the support program show tutors struggled to fix papers submitted by football players that were largely filled with plagiarized passages. Academic profiles describe some of the players as needing major help reading and interpreting academic works.
The academic fraud has prompted four investigations, including one led by former Gov. Jim Martin, who has the task of trying to determine when it started and how far it reached. The NCAA has not gotten involved, though officials say they are monitoring the situation.
Last month, Willingham started a blog called Athletics vs. Academics, a Clash of Cultures. Martin and a representative of the accounting firm Baker Tilly, which has been hired to help Martin investigate the no-show classes, interviewed her a few days later. Martin declined to talk about what she said. But he was no longer standing by what he had said prior to her interview: that no one in the program had seen a problem with the no-show classes. Instead, he said he couldnt comment.
Chancellor Holden Thorp declined to discuss Willinghams assertions. Im not going to talk to you about this stuff because weve got this thing going on with Gov. Martin, and thats where our focus is right now, and these are the kinds of matters were working on, Thorp said. Thats all Ive got to say about it right now.
Willingham mostly does not blame the athletes. While she described a few as uncooperative and troublesome, many were amazing kids who wanted to succeed on the field and in the classroom, but they were so far behind academically that it was an almost impossible goal. Its not right, Willingham said. Its the adults who are not doing what they are supposed to do.
News researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.