US Senate hearing next week to include UNC-Chapel Hill academic scandal

dkane@newsobserver.comMay 7, 2014 

The academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill will apparently be part of a U.S. Senate committee hearing next week.

The Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation said in a news release Wednesday that it will conduct a hearing titled “Promoting The Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes” on May 14.

The witness list has not been announced, but The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Wednesday that among those asked to testify is Mary Willingham, the former learning specialist for UNC’s athlete tutoring program who blew the whistle on fraudulent classes to The News & Observer nearly three years ago.

Willingham later confirmed in an email message that she would be testifying. Others the Chronicle said had been asked to speak include former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who is leading a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA over revenues gained from the use of athletes’ names and images, and Ramogi Huma, the leader of an organization seeking to unionize college athletes.

Willingham told the Chronicle that NCAA President Mark Emmert had also been invited to speak.

The committee is led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat. According to the announcement, the hearing will “explore how the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) is fulfilling its stated mission ‘to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.’ The hearing will also examine whether the commercial operation of college athletics is unfairly exploiting the talents and services of college athletes.”

Willingham told The N&O in 2011 that the tutoring program for athletes was steering them to lecture-style classes in the African studies department that did not meet. Instead, the athletes were told to write a paper and turn it in at the end of the class. She said the athletes typically received high grades.

Subsequent investigations by the university confirmed the “paper” classes but also found that nonathletes had also enrolled in them and received the same high grades. As a result, the university said the scandal was not an NCAA matter.

A House committee on Thursday is also conducting a hearing regarding college athletics, but it is focusing on the unionization effort at Northwestern University, which recently received a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board. The announcement of that hearing before the House Education and the Workforce Committee was critical of the board’s decision.

“The NLRB’s decision represents a radical departure from longstanding federal labor policies,” Chairman John Kline, a Minnesota Republican, said in a news release.

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

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