UNC-Chapel Hill should heed whistle-blower Mary Willingham

March 26, 2014 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has prided itself on its integrity for over 200 years. And it stands behind a policy, with regard to employees who come forward with information critical of the university, that says those employees will be “free of intimidation or harassment.”

No wonder, then, that a Washington-based nonprofit focused on ensuring that whistle-blowers are not persecuted is taking a critical look at UNC-CH. The Goverment Accountability Project (GAP) is reviewing whether school officials have tried to intimidate Mary Willingham, a former academic counselor for athletes. Willingham has enraged some university officials by saying she has figures showing that some athletes could not read adequately for college work.

Willingham said she decided to speak out about the academic/athletics problems after attending the 2012 funeral of William Friday, the UNC System’s president emeritus and a long-time advocate of reform in college athletics. It was a courageous step in many ways, and university officials have since tried to discredit her. The university’s provost, James Dean, attacked her research methods, and the university has an independent group investigating Willingham’s findings as well.

A worrisome attitude

But the fallout for the university just keeps getting worse. Its attitude toward Willingham from the start has been defensive in the extreme, an almost knee-jerk response. That attitude is worrisome, and the head of GAP now believes the university should investigate instead whether school officials targeted Willingham’s credibility.

Louis Clark of GAP said the university also should release the names of the members of the board investigating Willingham’s research.

UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt, who took over after former Chancellor Holden Thorp departed in the shadow of the scandals, has admirably acknowledged the university’s ownership of the crisis, but she needs to intervene here and quickly. Some university supporters appear all too eager to put the blame on the bearer of the bad tidings.

To focus on Willingham, as the university appears to be trying to do, is looking at the wrong person for the wrong reason. Willingham’s motives seem at this point to be absolutely sincere. Clark believes the university looks like a bully here. That is not helping UNC-Chapel Hill’s credibility as it tries to get a handle on this crisis of three years.

Where blame belongs

Also not helping is justifiable continued media attention, such as an HBO program that aired this week and an ESPN show in which former UNC athletes say academic advisers told them what courses to take and what their majors would be.

UNC-CH is scrambling to deal with the crisis, talking about former employees in the African studies department where phony courses drew athletes, or the news media instead of being willing to look beyond the most obvious developments. Another independent investigation has been launched, and for that the university deserves credit. That investigation, headed by a Washington lawyer, needs to leave nothing to assumption or chance.

And it doesn’t matter that many other schools might have been doing the same sorts of things in academics to keep players eligible, which some UNC boosters say is why their problems are no big deal. But they are. And they should be at a university that set itself apart for decades as playing in the noble “Carolina Way.”

The university’s loyalists, be they alumni or boosters, are weary of this story, and they are right when they say it’s time for this crisis to end. But only absolute candor and openness from the university will accomplish that.

The wounds to the university’s image have been mostly self-inflicted. The cure will be found only in getting the whole story out, not in trying to rationalize it or suppress it.

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