UNC Scandal

UNC critic Mary Willingham accused of plagiarism in thesis

Three years ago, N.C. State fans put a hurt on UNC-Chapel Hill by discovering that a football player’s term paper largely consisted of passages cut and pasted from several sources. It was the first hint of a long-standing academic scandal involving lecture-style classes that never met.

This past weekend, it was the UNC fans’ turn to tap their computer keyboards and scrutinize a college paper. But this one was written by Mary Willingham, the former UNC learning specialist who later blew the whistle on the misconduct.

They parsed the master’s thesis she wrote in 2009, and posted on the Inside Carolina Internet message board what appear to be several examples in which her wording either mirrors or closely resembles other sources. In some cases, she cites sources but doesn’t put their information in quotes. In others, she did not cite the source.

The paper – “Academics & Athletics – A Clash of Cultures: Division I Football Programs” – helped earn her a master’s degree from UNC Greensboro. Her thesis is highly critical of the NCAA and its member colleges that are bringing in millions of dollars from TV contracts and other sources, and it contends that the stated goal of educating athletes has been pushed aside in the grab for dollars.

Willingham in a phone interview said she worked hard on the paper, calling the experience “brutal.” She said any instances in which information was not properly cited or quoted were inadvertent. The paper includes more than 60 citations, at least a dozen passages that are in quotes and a bibliography of more than 30 sources.

“Whatever I did, I did, and, you know, whatever,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Willingham’s claims

Willingham told The News & Observer in August 2011 that the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes was steering athletes to classes in the former African and Afro-American Studies department that were supposed to be lecture-style but didn’t actually meet. Her claims helped prompt a UNC investigation that confirmed the no-show classes several months later.

Willingham had worked as a learning specialist for the athletes’ tutoring program for seven years before she left in 2010 to take a different job with the university. She resigned from that job in May, claiming she was being subjected to a hostile work environment. She is suing the university for unspecified damages.

Her whistleblowing has made her the enemy of many Carolina fans who have sought to shoot down her claims. They and a vocal critic of Willingham cited the suspect passages as more evidence that she cannot be trusted.

“The former reading specialist who decried the ‘bogus,’ ‘no-show’ classes in which students were awarded high grades for ‘cut-and-paste’ papers, we discovered, completed her online master’s degree by submitting a cut-and-paste paper herself,’ wrote Bradley Bethel in his “Coaching the Mind” blog. He was hired as a learning specialist for athletes in September 2011, after the university put a stop to the no-show classes.

The apparent plagiarism identified by UNC fans does not come close to the kind of cutting and pasting apparent in other high-profile cases, such as the thesis of a Montana Senate candidate recently exposed by The New York Times. The News & Observer ran Willingham’s paper through WriteCheck, a website that identifies potential plagiarism, and also found many of the questionable passages.

The passages amount to a small percentage of the paper’s material, but two experts said they raise enough questions that UNC Greensboro should re-examine the thesis.

“I would say it’s sloppiness that has risen to the level of plagiarism,” said Valerie Seiling Jacobs, a Columbia University writing professor and attorney who leads a project to help students avoid plagiarism. “It’s not like (Willingham has) cut and pasted her thesis and claimed it as her own, but she has failed to properly cite and attribute the words and ideas of other writers.”

Harold “Skip” Garner, a Virginia Tech biochemistry professor who created a website that catches plagiarism in scientific research articles, said some of the suspect passages are long enough to suggest they were knowingly copied. Sometimes, he said, writers will inadvertently copy from memory shorter phrases that they came across in their research.

“It’s clear that in order to get something like a whole sentence or paragraph in, you did the (cut and paste) somewhere, and that should be an immediate signal that you should put it in quotes,” he said.

But he could not say whether the copying reflected an intent to plagiarize.

“It’s easy to figure out if something is identical to another segment,” he said. “It’s harder to figure out why it was done and what was the motivation.”

Paul Mason, a UNC-Greensboro spokesman, would only confirm Willingham received her degree and submitted the thesis. He said questions about the paper could not be answered because of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which keeps private most student academic records.

A congressman’s letter

One of the biggest issues with Willingham’s thesis is how parts resemble a congressman’s letter to the NCAA in 2006. Then-Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican, raised several concerns about the revenue growth in big-time college sports. He questioned the NCAA’s and Division I schools’ commitment to educating athletes.

“Rewarding athletic instead of academic performance seems to be contradictory to the NCAA’s tax-exempt mission, and sends a message to member institutions and athletes that athletics is more important than academics,” Thomas wrote.

Willingham wrote in her thesis: “Rewarding athletics instead of academic performance seems to be contradictory to the NCAA’s tax-exempt mission, and sends a message to member institutions and athletes that athletics is more important than academics.”

The only difference is “athletics’ is plural in the first reference. It is one of more than 10 sentences that mirror or closely match Thomas’ letter, which is not cited in Willingham’s paper or listed in the bibliography. Willingham does note in her paper that Congress was asking questions of the NCAA and cites two other secondary sources for some of the information.

Willingham did not go public with her claims about UNC’s tutoring program until an N&O report in November 2012. At that time, she also said she had worked with athletes, primarily football and basketball players, who struggled to read and write. She contended program officials knew the classes were not legitimate but used them to help keep the players eligible.

Since January, the university has vigorously denied some of her claims. She told CNN her research showed roughly 70 percent of athletes tested for learning deficits over an eight-year period could not read at the high school level. The university hired three experts to look over a spreadsheet of vocabulary test scores she had compiled. The experts said she could not reach her conclusions based on that data. Willingham said her findings were based on more than those test scores.

Bethel and other critics later accused her of misleading the university as to the true nature of her research.

But other evidence has backed what Willingham has said about the classes. Investigations have found more than 200 classes dating back to the mid-1990s that are confirmed or suspected of never having met. The term papers those students turned in typically received high grades with little evidence they were actually read.

Athletes accounted for 45 percent of the enrollments. Correspondence obtained by the N&O show tutoring program staff steered academically challenged athletes into one class. In another case, a staff member asked that a “research paper” class be repeated.

Bethel, meanwhile, told UNC Chancellor Carol Folt in an email a year ago that the university was admitting too many athletes who couldn’t succeed academically. He did not intend for the email to become public, but once it did, UNC officials then assured him they were accepting far fewer academically challenged athletes.

UNC officials have disputed the ties to athletics, contending the fraud was not an athletic issue because nonathletes were also enrolled. A new investigation led by Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official, is examining the athletic connections to the scandal. He said he hopes to have it completed by fall.

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