UNC whistleblower stands firm: Player couldn’t read, and she’ll show evidence to Williams

dkane@newsobserver.com jstancill@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2014 

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UNC coach Roy Williams has disagreed with a learning specialist’s assessment that one of his players couldn’t read. The specialist hasn’t identified the player.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Challenged by reading

    Mary Willingham said she arrived at her findings by identifying the athletes who had received remedial help in a special summer program. Of those 183 athletes, 85 percent were football or men’s basketball players.

    Of that group, 60 percent, or 110 athletes, read between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels.

    Eight to 10 percent, or 15 to 18 athletes, read below the fourth-grade level.

Mary Willingham, the UNC learning specialist who blew the whistle on a long-running academic fraud, said Friday that if men’s basketball coach Roy Williams does not believe one of his players couldn’t read or write, she will show him proof.

Willingham also provided copies of emails that show twice last summer, she sent findings of her research into athletes’ reading deficiencies to university officials, saying, for example, that 60 percent of athletes who were admitted to the university with subpar academic records were reading at a level between the fourth and eighth grades.

University officials say they have asked Willingham repeatedly for the data behind those findings; she has declined because that would identify the students. She said she is bound by research regulations not to do that.

She said she knows that one of Williams’ players could not read.

“I stand by what I said, and if he wants to meet with me and go through his players, I’d be happy to share that,” said Willingham, who worked in the tutoring program for student athletes from 2003 to 2010. “I have his scores and ... I’m the one who taught him.

“I went to a lot of basketball games in the Dean Dome, but Roy never came and sat with me while I tutored his guys.”

Willingham, 52, first disclosed her concerns about the athletes’ struggles and the bogus classes to The News & Observer in August 2011. She went public in an N&O story Nov. 17, 2012, saying that one student had admitted to never reading a book and another did not know what a paragraph was.

CNN gave her concerns new life this week when it did a report on the academic fraud. It cited continuing research Willingham has been doing on reading scores the athletic department had collected on 183 academically challenged athletes from 2004 to 2012.

She reported those scores showed that 60 percent of those athletes had a reading level between the fourth and eighth grades, while between 8 to 10 percent of the athletes read below a third-grade level. She said the university expects students to be able to read at least at the ninth-grade level to handle the workload.

She provided those findings to the university five months ago, emails show.

The reports have drawn a new round of criticism for Willingham from university officials, and this time Williams jumped in. Both suggested she was impugning the character of the university’s student athletes.

“And I’m really proud of my kids. Anybody says anything like that ... that’s not right,” Williams said. “And every kid – and I can’t say others – but I know what the program’s been for 100 years. Every one of the kids that we’ve recruited in 10 years you’d take home with you and let (them) guard your grandchildren.”

None of the remarks as quoted by CNN, in previous coverage by the N&O or in a recent documentary called “Schooled: The Price of College Sports,” show that Willingham has criticized athletes. She has repeatedly said they are being failed by a university that has put athletic success first.

“These guys are not getting the education they deserve, and that’s the bottom line,” she said.

Sharing results, not data

Shortly after CNN’s report, Willingham said she received several death threats, hate mail and nasty phone calls. She did not file a report, but campus police offered her protection, she said.

Willingham sent an email with the findings to UNC Provost Jim Dean in July, and sent another in August to Lissa Broome, UNC’s faculty representative to the NCAA.

Broome shared them with several officials who are on a special group looking into academics and athletics. Among them: Dean and UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham.

Willingham also told them: “Of the 183 students, 45 (about 24%) had UNC GPA’s under 2.0, thus putting them at risk of academic disqualification. Ninety-four of the 183 students, over half, had GPA’s under 2.3. Keep in mind that the bogus system of eligibility – UNC’s paper class system – was assisting these players to stay on the court/field. That system no longer exists.”

She also had given a presentation about her work to the UNC College Sports Research Institute’s annual conference in April. Richard Southall, director of the center, which recently moved to the University of South Carolina, is working with her on the research. They have plans to produce an article for publication in a research journal.

He stood by her work.

“It’s UNC’s data,” he said. “Mary didn’t make this up. Mary didn’t concoct this data out of thin air, and the administration should be aware of the data.”

Dean faulted Willingham for not producing the data supporting her findings. He said he and other officials have repeatedly asked her for that data for months.

“It doesn’t make any sense to us,” he said. “If you feel you have the proof, why wouldn’t you show the proof? For the life of me I can’t understand it.”

Willingham said she can’t share the data. To comply with nationally recognized research standards, she had to agree not to identify any students, but she said she is willing to show UNC officials where to find the information.

Dean said the university would take her up on her offer to identify the basketball player she says couldn’t read or write.

An athletic scandal?

Other academic records and correspondence at UNC have shown the university has admitted academically challenged athletes who struggle to keep up with their schoolwork.

Records obtained by The N&O show the tutoring program for athletes was steering them into no-show classes that only required a paper, and had asked for one to be repeated. That class was an intermediate language course on Swahili, and the term paper was allowed to be written in English.

The no-show classes are part of a major academic scandal at UNC, the worst in its history. Investigations have found more than 200 suspected or confirmed no-show classes since the mid-1990s within the African and Afro-American Studies department. There were also more than 500 suspected or confirmed grade changes, and hundreds of accurately named independent studies that lacked supervision.

UNC has said only the department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, and his longtime assistant, Deborah Crowder, were behind the fraud, and that it did not have the intent of keeping athletes eligible. Athletes, who make up less than 5 percent of the student body, accounted for 45 percent of the enrollments and half of the grade changes.

UNC continues to withhold information that would shed light on the scandal, particularly the athletic enrollments in the earliest known fraudulent classes. The first three confirmed classes were Swahili language courses.

Dean said he thinks the scandal was not about athletics because non-athletes made up 55 percent of the total enrollments. He did say the athletes benefited “disproportionately” from the no-show classes but there’s no evidence to suggest an athletic motive.

The enrollments of the earliest known no-show classes could provide clues as to how the scandal started. He said he had not been focused on finding that out and was not aware that The N&O was seeking that information.

“I appreciate the suggestion, and it sounds like something maybe we ought to take a look at,” Dean said.

The N&O has been pressing the university’s chancellor, legal and communications staff for this information for several months.

UNC system President Tom Ross has not sought the information. On Friday, he had no comment on Willingham’s research other than he knew the university was seeking to vet it, and he wanted to know the result.

“We need to look at those facts to see what, if any, research was done and what it shows,” he said. “I don’t think we have the information about that at this point.”

The CNN report is the latest in a stretch of national reports about the academic fraud since New Year’s Eve. Ross called the national attention “a distraction.”

“It flares up and then it goes away, and it flares up and it goes away,” he said. “The big issues that we’re really facing in higher education that affect all of our students, those are the ones the board is focused on, those are the ones that we’re working on all the time. That’s not to say we’re not focused on these other issues. We’ve spent a lot of time on them.”

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando

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