At UNC, the messenger is gone, the message remains

April 22, 2014 

From the beginning, nearly three years ago, when Mary Willingham spoke out about a tutoring program for athletes that was steering some to easy classes that did not meet, her departure from the university was likely only a matter of time. Whistle-blowers are rarely rewarded and often punished.

On Monday, Willingham had a one-hour meeting with UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt. Afterward, she declared her intention to leave the university at semester’s end. Accounts of the meeting vary: Jay Smith, a history professor and friend of Willingham’s, says the chancellor berated Willingham, who has been outspoken about the athletics-academic scandal that has embarrassed the university. A spokesman for Folt said the chancellor believed the meeting to be even-handed and productive.

It’s true that Willingham has been interviewed by national media outlets, and her claims that her research found many athletes who could not read at a proper level stung university leaders. At one point, Willingham told CNN that a former basketball player struggled to read. Coach Roy Williams challenged her, whereupon Willingham offered to meet with him and show him her evidence. Williams then declined.

Folt inherited this crisis, and it remains a crisis of huge proportion, even after former Chancellor Holden Thorp resigned and left the university. For all of the criticism of Willingham by boosters and administrators, the university has had to acknowledge that indeed, the African studies curriculum included more than 200 confirmed or suspected no-show classes, where students were required only to write a paper by semester’s end. Athletes made up 45 percent of the enrollments; they constitute 5 percent of the student body.

But the university has continued to rationalize its claims that the classes were not designed for athletes because there were other students in them. That’s weak logic, at best.

The university also sponsored an investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin that was inconclusive and weak. Now it has hired a high-priced Washington lawyer, Kenneth Wainstein, to conduct yet another investigation.

Beginning with problems in the football program under former coach Butch Davis, where players were alleged to have had improper contact with agents, and continuing with the revelations about academic scandal, the university has found itself as the latest example, and it has become a national example, of an athletics program grown too powerful.

Folt now owns this crisis. The resignation of Willingham, which a spokesman for Folt said the chancellor did not request, comes after attempts by the university to discredit her, including bringing in three outside experts who challenged the validity of her research on athletes’ reading levels.

But Willingham was an academic counselor; she worked with athletes. She knew the system. And though she is said to be working on a book, she has been a relatively low-ranking employee who stands little to gain from her role in what has happened. The chancellor could have taken a positive step by offering Willingham a position in her office pertaining to academics and athletics and getting constructive advice from someone who had been there. Instead, no matter how the meeting is interpreted, it is going to appear that Willingham was in some way encouraged to leave.

The university, despite multiple investigations, seems more interested in moving on, in believing that if it just treads water the crisis will pass. Instead, there should be a thorough look at how far back these phony classes go and who in the academic administration knew what and when they knew it. Yes, UNC-Chapel Hill has, after this humiliating experience, taken some steps of reform.

But Folt has an opportunity to go beyond reform as a part of crisis management. She must avoid becoming entangled by tangential issues related more to the robust health of the athletics program and focus instead on the university’s hard-won reputation for integrity and academic excellence. In the end, that’s what matters. It is all that matters.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service