As a reading specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham met athletes who told her they had never read a book and didn’t know what a paragraph was. She said she saw diagnostic tests that showed they were unable to do college-level work.
But many of those athletes stayed eligible to play sports, she said, because the academic support system provided improper help and tolerated plagiarism. When she raised questions or made an objection to what she saw as cheating, she said, she saw no one take her concerns seriously.
Willingham, who still works at the university but not with athletes, said she lodged complaints at least two years before UNC’s academic problems erupted into scandal. She channeled some of her frustration into a thesis for her master’s degree, on the corrupting influence of big-money sports on university academics.
But after attending the recent funeral of former UNC system President Bill Friday, a prominent critic of revenue-driven college sports, and seeing that no one within the program was willing to admit that they had been aware of a problem, Willingham decided it was time to go public.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
In a series of interviews with The News & Observer, she said there were numerous people in the academic support program who knew that what was going on was wrong, but they looked the other way, helping to protect one of the nation’s most storied athletic programs.
Among her assertions:
• The no-show classes that had been offered by the chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies date back at least to the time Willingham began working for the support program in 2003. Commonly known within the program as “paper classes,” they were billed as lecture classes, but the classes never met.
Willingham learned of them when she was asked to work with a female athlete on a paper. Willingham said the paper was a “cut-and-paste” job, but when she raised questions about it, staff members told her not to worry. The student later received a grade of B or better.
• Members of the men’s basketball team took no-show classes until the fall semester of 2009, when the team was assigned a new academic counselor. The new counselor was appalled to learn of the classes, and wanted no part of them. University records show the enrollments stopped that semester for basketball players, while they continued for football players.
• Numerous football and basketball players came to the university with academic histories that showed them incapable of doing college-level work, especially at one of the nation’s top public universities. Diagnostic tests administered by the university confirmed their lack of preparedness and also identified learning disabilities that would need extensive remediation to put them on a successful academic path.
Some athletes told Willingham they had never read a book or written a paragraph, but they were placed in no-show classes that required a 20-page paper and came away with grades of B or better.
• Roughly five years ago, Bobbi Owen, the senior associate dean who had oversight of the academic support program, sought to rein in the number of independent studies offered by the African studies department, which by then averaged nearly 200 a year. Independent studies required no class time and often not much more than a term paper; they were popular with football and basketball players.
University records show that the number of independent study enrollments plummeted in the past five years compared with the previous five. Those courses have also been cited for a lack of academic integrity.
Willingham, 51, said most of the athletes in the nonrevenue sports are capable of doing college-level work. But lowered academic standards for the football players and men’s basketball players – known as “special admits” – brought in athletes who lacked the academic ability, while still being expected to devote at least 20 hours a week to their sports.
She called that a dynamic destined to produce cheating. The special admissions go at least as far back as the early 1990s.
“There are serious literacy deficits and they cannot do the course work here,” Willingham said. “And if you cannot do the course work here, how do you stay eligible? You stay eligible by some department, some professor, somebody who gives you a break. That’s everywhere across the country. Here it happened with paper classes. There’s no question.”
An easy path
Willingham is the first person from inside the academic support program to go public with details about its operations. Other information has come through records released by the university or obtained by The N&O from other sources. The university has confirmed that there were at least 54 such no-show classes in the past four years that didn’t meet and required only a term paper at the end.
They were largely filled with athletes. Other records have identified two other no-show classes – and suggest the classes go back at least a dozen years and were known within the support program as an easy path for athletes.
Plagiarism has also emerged as an issue with these classes and with another class athletes took. Some internal records from the support program show tutors struggled to fix papers submitted by football players that were largely filled with plagiarized passages. Academic profiles describe some of the players as needing major help reading and interpreting academic works.
The academic fraud has prompted four investigations, including one led by former Gov. Jim Martin, who has the task of trying to determine when it started and how far it reached. The NCAA has not gotten involved, though officials say they are monitoring the situation.
Last month, Willingham started a blog called “Athletics vs. Academics, a Clash of Cultures.” Martin and a representative of the accounting firm Baker Tilly, which has been hired to help Martin investigate the no-show classes, interviewed her a few days later.
Martin declined to talk about what she said. But he was no longer standing by what he had said prior to her interview: that no one in the program had seen a problem with the no-show classes. Instead, he said he couldn’t comment.
Chancellor Holden Thorp declined to discuss Willingham’s assertions.
“I’m not going to talk to you about this stuff because we’ve got this thing going on with Gov. Martin, and that’s where our focus is right now, and these are the kinds of matters we’re working on,” Thorp said. “That’s all I’ve got to say about it right now.”
Calls and emails to other university officials, former and current academic support program staff and others to address Willingham’s assertions were either not returned, drew no comment or no response.
Steve Kirschner, an athletic department spokesman, said in email messages Friday that the last basketball player to major in African or Afro-American studies graduated in 2009. He said interest had declined in the department’s majors after 2005, and chalked it up to “(d)ifferent players have different interests.”
Last month, The N&O questioned men’s basketball coach Roy Williams as to why his players stopped enrolling in no-show classes by the fall of 2009. Williams offered no explanation other than a suggestion that players may have decided on their own not to take them.
Willingham said a new academic counselor assigned to the team in summer 2009 told her she would not enroll the players in the no-show classes. “She said, ‘I didn’t come here ... to do this. Everything has to be on the up and up,’ ” Willingham recalled.
In interviews, Willingham declined to name the new counselor, but university records show that Jennifer Townsend was hired as an associate director in August 2009 and took over the role of academic counselor for the men’s basketball team. She replaced Wayne Walden, whom Williams had described as one of the most important people in his program.
Townsend’s profile on UNC-CH’s website shows she was the academic counselor for men’s and women’s basketball at the University of Minnesota. She worked there after the university went through one of the most notorious scandals in college basketball history.
In 1999, the St. Paul Pioneer Press uncovered a cheating scandal involving a former university office manager who had written papers, filled out take-home exams and done other course work for 20 basketball players over a five-year period. The NCAA hit the university with numerous sanctions and wiped a 1997 Final Four appearance from the record books.
Townsend did not return messages to her work or cell phones.
A suspect paper
Willingham said after her early experience with the female athlete’s paper, she avoided the African studies papers by spending most of her time working with athletes in the nonrevenue sports, and by helping students with introductory English classes. But the issue arose again in 2008, she said, when she was asked to look at a history paper for a football player.
She said it, too, did not look like the student had written it. Willingham said she told the program director, Robert Mercer, that she believed the tutor, Jennifer Wiley, had done the work. Mercer referred Willingham to another academic counselor, who denied a problem and took no action, she said.
That was the last straw, she said, and she began seeking jobs outside of the academic support program. In early 2010, she began working for another learning center at UNC that serves nonathletes.
Two years after Willingham said she raised questions, NCAA investigators found that Wiley had written parts of papers for three football players. One of them, Willingham said, was the same football player she previously reported.
Wiley, who received a letter in 2010 that disassociated her from the university, has declined numerous requests to talk about her work for the support program. She did not talk to the university or the NCAA.
Mercer was moved to another job earlier this year. He could not be reached for comment.
Willingham said she met with university attorneys at their request in mid 2010, during the NCAA investigation, to discuss what happened in 2008. She said they thanked her for coming, and never talked to her again. She said she never heard from the NCAA.
Willingham provided no records to support her claims and would not identify specific athletes for fear that would violate the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA. The law requires universities to keep most education records private or face the loss of federal funding.
University officials have repeatedly cited FERPA in declining to discuss various developments in the academic fraud case, or to produce records related to it. They have also released statements criticizing the disclosure of such records, which have been some of the strongest pieces of evidence as to the extent of the scandal.
For the most part, Willingham does not blame the athletes. While she described a few as uncooperative and troublesome, many were “amazing kids” who wanted to succeed on the field and in the classroom, but they were so far behind academically that it was an almost impossible goal.
“It’s not right,” Willingham said. “It’s the adults who are not doing what they are supposed to do.”
News researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.