Education

Book by Willingham, Smith details UNC academic, athletic scandals

Jay Smith, left, UNC-CH professor of history, and Mary Willingham, former UNC-CH reading specialist, co-wrote “Cheated” over the past year and a half. The book is to be released in March.
Jay Smith, left, UNC-CH professor of history, and Mary Willingham, former UNC-CH reading specialist, co-wrote “Cheated” over the past year and a half. The book is to be released in March. hlynch@newsobserver.com

A new book offers a stinging critique of UNC-Chapel Hill’s handling of the academic and athletic wrongdoing that kept student athletes eligible to compete and persisted for nearly two decades.

The book, titled “Cheated,” is co-authored by a UNC-CH history professor, Jay Smith, and Mary Willingham, the whistleblower and learning specialist formerly employed at the university. Published by Potomac Books of the University of Nebraska Press, it is available online and will soon be in bookstores.

Smith and Willingham give an insider’s view of the university’s early reaction to the scandal and its failure to unearth the truth. It also outlines a racial history at UNC-CH that created an environment for benign neglect in the department of African and Afro-American Studies, where the academic fraud was centered.

There, more than 3,100 students – about half of them athletes – took bogus classes for 18 years from 1993 to 2011, according to a report last October from Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor hired by the university to investigate.

He found that the so-called paper classes, which required minimal work but yielded high grades, were more widespread than first thought, and that various athletics counselors, coaches, faculty and administrators had some knowledge of the scheme.

Before Wainstein’s work, though, the university had conducted several internal investigations and paid for another by a consulting firm and former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin. All of those reviews found troubling evidence but steadfastly maintained that the scandal was not about athletics.

‘Carolina cover-up’

That was by design, the authors contend. The book paints a picture of an administration and athletics department in a siege mentality the past several years, trying to manage the scandal but not really trying to get to the bottom of it. Smith and Willingham call it a “Carolina cover-up.”

“Through negligence, willful blindness, and some degree of conscious intent, key actors at the university first permitted the development of widespread academic fraud and then covered up the reasons for that fraud when the wrongdoing at last came to light,” Smith and Willingham write.

A university spokesman declined to comment, citing a lawsuit filed by Willingham against the university.

“We have known for some time Mr. Smith and Ms. Willingham were planning to publish a book,” said Rick White, associate vice chancellor of communications and public affairs. “Due to ongoing litigation with Ms. Willingham, we can’t comment further.”

Willingham sued last year, claiming she was demoted and subjected to a hostile work environment after she told her supervisor she had talked to News & Observer reporter Dan Kane about the phony classes at UNC-CH. The case is scheduled to go to mediation next month, Willingham said.

In an interview Wednesday, Smith and Willingham said they decided to write the book after their disappointment with the Martin Report. That investigation placed blame on two people – Julius Nyang’oro, former chairman of the AFAM department, and Deborah Crowder, the department office manager.

“We were mainly interested in showing the desire to hide as much as possible once the thing blew into the open in 2010, 2011,” Smith said. “So the cover-up we’re talking about is really the refusal of administrators and other leaders to get at and disclose the full truth.”

The book describes how a university attorney and a faculty representative interviewed Willingham about what she knew in 2010 but only asked narrow questions. She was relieved someone finally cared, she said.

She expected they would return for deeper conversations, and she hoped to help the university craft solutions, she said. But months and months passed; she never heard another word.

Similarly, Smith wrote a letter and had discussions with former Chancellor Holden Thorp in which he asked probing questions and called for a deeper look.

In an email Wednesday, Thorp, now the provost at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote: “I think I have been very consistent since I announced that I was stepping down that I should have done more to get to some of these answers faster.”

Sports fans

The book portrays Nyang’oro as a faculty member who rose quickly to become the AFAM chairman after a period of interim leaders. He was a sports fan, the authors contend, who could be seen sitting behind the North Carolina men’s basketball bench.

Crowder, the office administrator who orchestrated many of the bogus classes, had been identified as a sports enthusiast in the Wainstein report, but not Nyang’oro. On Wednesday, Nyang’oro’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

“The wide inclination to be fans and to be supportive of the athletic program is one of the reasons why we allow ourselves to get into these situations at the university,” Smith said. “Debby and Julius are just Exhibit A in that.”

The athletes’ fellow classmates were fans, too, according to the book. A former AFAM student, now a history professor at Texas A&M, described how the setup was an open secret and students laughed about the fact that athletes weren’t expected to actually write papers.

Athletes were “nice guys” who came to class and handed out bags of Doritos they had been given in the dining hall.

The book details the sad story of a football player the authors call “Reg,” who remained eligible only by taking 10 paper classes in the bogus curriculum hatched by Crowder and Nyang’oro.

When Willingham was assigned to help him, she was astonished when she reviewed his academic history, she wrote. The player had never passed a general competency exam during his primary and high school years.

He advanced grade by grade only by “portfolios” presented by his teachers. He didn’t make it through the freshman basic writing class at UNC-CH and made C’s and D’s in other classes. His reading skills were poor, yet he was placed in independent studies normally geared to high performing students.

“Reg finally left UNC without a degree,” the authors write. “He also left without having his name called on draft day. He never found a career in football. Today his whereabouts are unknown.”

Willingham said she wanted to write the book to urge reform of big-time college sports at the national level. Already that conversation is swirling, with ideas such as paying athletes and creating a presidential commission. She wants education to be front and center in the debate.

“We know there’s one way out of poverty, and it’s a real education,” Willingham said. “So if we’re going to promise people an education, then I think we should deliver it.”

The book, which took Smith and Willingham about 18 months to write, was finished before the Wainstein report in October. Since then, four university employees have been dismissed, and the university has launched disciplinary review of several others.

Smith said those fired were non-tenure track faculty or low-level academic counselors who are essentially scapegoats.

“What about the coaches and the deans and the ADs (athletics directors)? What about them?” he said.

One thing not addressed in the book is Willingham’s research on UNC-CH athletes’ reading ability, which gained national attention last year. Her work was dissected and questioned at a faculty meeting, where Provost Jim Dean called it “a travesty.”

That will be the subject of the next book, Willingham said. A book about a whistleblower.

“It’s not over yet,” she said.

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