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Insider: UNC tolerated cheating

Reading specialist says she blew whistle, but her concerns were put aside

More Information

  • The story so far

    The athletic-academic culture at UNC-Chapel Hill has been under a microscope for the past two years. The football team is on NCAA probation because of improper benefits given to players by agents and improper academic help from a tutor.

    The scandal reached deeper into academics when it was revealed that the African studies department offered classes that promised lectures but never met. Many of the no-show classes were packed with athletes.

    Four investigations have been launched to find out how widespread the academic fraud was, how long it existed and whether any crimes were committed.


  • More information

    Ex-athletic aide speaks out

    Read Mary Willingham’s blog at http://athleticsvsacademics.blogspot.com.



As a reading specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham met athletes who told her they had never read a book and didn’t 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 UNC’s academic problems erupted into scandal. She channeled some of her frustration into a thesis for her master’s 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 nation’s 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 men’s 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 nation’s 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 men’s 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. That’s everywhere across the country. Here it happened with paper classes. There’s 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t comment.

Chancellor Holden Thorp declined to discuss Willingham’s assertions. “I’m not going to talk to you about this stuff because we’ve got this thing going on with Gov. Martin, and that’s where our focus is right now, and these are the kinds of matters we’re working on,” Thorp said. “That’s all I’ve 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. “It’s not right,” Willingham said. “It’s the adults who are not doing what they are supposed to do.”

News researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

Kane: 919-829-4861
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