UNC leaders make wrong response to whistle-blower

January 18, 2014 

First the question was whether some athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were academically qualified. Now the question is whether the university’s leaders can make the grade.

At a time that demands that forthright leadership get to the bottom of the scandal involving athletes and no-show classes, UNC’s leadership is getting it all wrong. Instead of listening to whistle-blower Mary Willingham, the university has tried to discredit her, challenging the accuracy of her research into some athletes’ low literacy levels and suspending her research as a possible threat to student privacy.

Provost Jim Dean said Willingham did not have permission from the UNC research review board to use data that might identify students. He said Willingham’s research was flawed and her conclusions “virtually meaningless.” Chancellor Carol Folt broke her silence on the scandal by saying the data compiled by Willingham did not match what university officials see in athletes’ records.

Men’s basketball coach Roy Williams challenged Willingham’s claim that one of his previous players was illiterate. “I don’t think it’s true, and I’m really, really bothered by the whole thing,” he said.

Willingham, a learning specialist in the UNC athlete tutoring program from 2003 to 2010, offered to show the coach proof of her claim, but Williams said speaking with her wasn’t his role.

Willingham, who now works at the UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, first disclosed her concerns about academically struggling athletes and bogus classes to The News & Observer in August of 2011 and went public in a Nov. 17, 2012 N&O story. She further stirred the scandal when she discussed athletes poor reading skills in a recent CNN report. Her claims are hardly new, so why is UNC-CH’s leadership responding with shock, denial and disbelief? Regardless of the specifics, or even the flaws, of Willingham’s research, she did have direct experience with athletes who needed extensive academic help. And the broad outlines of the university’s problem with athletes and academics have been well established by other sources.

A review led by former Gov. Jim Martin documented hundreds of no-show classes and rampant grade changing. The transcripts of football stars Julius Peppers and Marvin Austin became public and raised serious questions about the rigor of the education UNC has offered athletes. Former football player Michael McAdoo recently told The N&O he was steered into phony courses and called the university’s academic environment for athletes “a sham.”

Someone at UNC, or someone with authority beyond campus, needs to end this matter by getting to its root. Instead of parsing Willingham’s findings, leaders need to find answers to basic questions: How long was the fraud going on? How many athletes were involved? Who initiated it and who perpetuated it?

Willingham says she will apply to the research review board to continue her work. Meanwhile, she said in an email to The Associated Press last week that UNC and other universities won’t clear up the problem of poorly educated athletes until they face it.

“The gap in academic preparedness between profit-sport athletes and students at NCAA [Division I] institutions perpetuates educational inequality,” Willingham said. “Until we acknowledge the problem, and fix it, many of our athletes, specifically men’s basketball and football players, are getting nothing in exchange for their special talents.”

The learning specialist is showing how to solve the problem. Now let’s see whether university leaders can learn to do it.

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