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August 5, 2014

UNC critic Mary Willingham on accusation of plagiarism: 'Whatever I did, I did and whatever'

Mary Willingham doesn't offer a strong defense against accusations that she plagiarized her master's thesis.

Mary Willingham has responded to accusations that she plagiarized her master's thesis at UNC-Greensboro and that response, in her words, is this: “Whatever I did, I did and, you know, whatever.”

That's what Willingham told News & Observer reporter Dan Kane. You can read our story about this right here.

Willingham, a former North Carolina learning specialist who worked with UNC athletes, has been an outspoken critic of the NCAA and the system through which athletes receive – or often don't receive, as she alleges – a real education. She has been a source for The N&O amid our ongoing reporting of the issues involving athletics and academics at UNC and a source, particularly, about how athletes wound up in suspect African- and Afro-American Studies courses.

All of that history is documented in the story above.

Undoubtedly, though, the apparent plagiarism – discovered by posters on an Inside Carolina message board – is another blow to Willingham's credibility, which had taken a hit previously over the controversy that surrounded her research into UNC athletes and their reading levels. You can read about some of that controversy right here.

So what does this mean, exactly?

Certainly, this hurts Willingham's reputation. The “whatever I did, I did” response is a bizarre one, and it isn't a worthy defense against the serious accusations of plagiarism.

But here's the thing, too: Willingham already lacked credibility in the eyes of a lot of UNC supporters. It's impossible to have less than zero of anything, and a lot of folks already believed Willingham had no credibility. And to people on the other side, those rival fans who have taken so much glee amid all the issues that have surrounded UNC, Willingham's misdeeds – whether it's out and out plagiarism or inadvertent, sloppy mistakes – isn't too likely to change their minds, either. The back-and-forth war of words between fans – and, at times, directed at the media – is pretty worthless, though. It doesn't matter.

The question of significance is what kind of tangible effect the alleged plagiarism – and one expert we talked to said Willingham's “sloppiness ... has risen to the level of plagiarism” – will have on anything that matters. Like the Wainstein investigation. And the NCAA investigation.

Willingham has been an outspoken critic – The N&O and other media outlets have described her as a whistleblower – of the AFAM issues at UNC, and she has alleged that athletes were steered to those courses. She claimed, among other things, that she witnessed academic fraud during her time as a learning specialist who worked with UNC athletes.

Does her apparent plagiarism negate her account of what went on at UNC? Does it make her less believable in the eyes of investigators – ones associated with Wainstein and/or the NCAA – who will ultimately have the final word on a scandal that has dragged on for years? Would her account have mattered to Wainstein and the NCAA in the first place, even before the plagiarism?

Willingham's claims have been an important part of the UNC academic/athletic saga, and for years she has played a key role in the case. She has become an advocate, in some ways, of blowing up the college sports model and reforming it so that athletes get a “real” education. Now she finds herself on the other side – facing accusations of academic misconduct instead of levying them.

Her reputation has undoubtedly taken a blow. Her thesis, one expert told The N&O, should be questioned by UNC-G. In short, Willingham has a lot of work to do to restore her name. The question now is what becomes of her cause, and her role in it.

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