The read on UNC-CH

Disclosures by a former academic adviser to athletes at UNC-CH merit attention.

November 19, 2012 

Mary Willingham provides a wake-up call for those who are weary of the news of academic scandal and the athletics program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A reading specialist who once worked with athletes, Willingham came home from the recent funeral of William Friday and made the decision to speak out about academic cheating and the attitude of those who were helping football and basketball players stay eligible to play their roles in the university’s “big-time” program.

Friday was president of the UNC system for 30 years. He fought for decades to bring college athletics under the rein he rightly thought had been broken, and was greatly disturbed by the shenanigans that have come to light over the last couple of years regarding an out-of-control football program under former Coach Butch Davis. The governing body of college athletics, the NCAA, investigated and penalized the university after it was shown athletes had received improper benefits.

But The News & Observer has since reported on heavy enrollment of athletes, especially football players, in courses from the African and Afro-American Studies department, courses that seemed to be lecture-driven but in fact required only a paper at semester’s end. This newspaper also showed that some athletes appeared to get favorable treatment in the department from former Chairman Julius Nyang’oro, now retired.

Inside view

Willingham, who now works in a learning center at UNC-CH that doesn’t deal with athletes, is the first person from inside the academic support program that helped athletes to go public with how it worked. She sat down for several interviews with The N&O, and that took courage considering she’s still employed by the university, which has seen its chancellor, Holden Thorp, announce an early exit from the post.

She told The N&O that the no-lecture classes in African Studies, popular with athletes, went back at least until 2003, when she joined the support program. They were called “paper classes.” She worked with one athlete on a paper and was troubled by the situation but another staff member told her not to worry and the student was given a B or better.

Indeed, Willingham appears to have waved flags more than once about breaches of academic standards, but no one seemed concerned. Finally, she became frustrated and successfully landed a spot outside of the academic support program.

Not qualified

Willingham says potential problems start early, because too many athletes in the big revenue sports of football and basketball are not academically qualified for college when they enter. Some told her, she said, that they’d never read a book or written a paragraph.

“And if you cannot do the course work here,” she said, “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.” Willingham said men’s basketball players stopped enrolling in no-show classes in the fall of 2009, after a new academic counselor arrived.

To its credit, the university has tightened controls and separated academic support from the Department of Athletics, which clearly was having trouble maintaining control under former Athletics Director Dick Baddour. Whether UNC-CH officials have done enough presumably will be determined after former Gov. Jim Martin and an auditing firm complete their investigation of academics and athletics.

But for now, Thorp and UNC system President Tom Ross need to speak out more forcefully as to their intention to ensure that academic standards are not sacrificed in the pursuit of football and basketball glory. A great university has been embarrassed by wretched excesses and academic fraud connected to its athletics program. The reins must be pulled, and hard.

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