Willingham: Never wanted to be UNC whistleblower

Posted December 3, 2014

— The former academic adviser at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who publicly criticized the literacy of the school's athletes amid investigations into academic fraud said Wednesday that she never wanted to become a whistleblower and still dislikes the tag.

Yet, Mary Willingham told members of the Durham Sports Club, she plans to continue working to clean up collegiate athletics, noting the NCAA has little incentive to reform the "corrupt system."

"We can fix it. We can do better than this, and we can still enjoy game day," said Willingham, who left UNC-Chapel Hill last spring.

Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein released a 131-page report last month detailing his investigation into fraudulent grades and coursework at the university. He found that academic counselors steered student-athletes to "irregular" classes within UNC-Chapel Hill's African and Afro-American Studies department that had no faculty involvement and never met. The fraud went on for 18 years, ending in 2011, and involved 169 athletes whose grades in such classes kept them eligible to compete in athletics.

Willingham said numerous people across the university knew about the sham classes, and "lots of people still aren't telling the truth." She recounted the struggles some of the student-athletes she worked with, saying they were doing work on the same level of her own elementary school- and middle school-age children.

"It's a corrupt system because many of these young men are passed through the system without really being given what they're promised, which is a real education," she said.

Universities have lowered their admissions standards for athletes, and the NCAA allows it to keep the revenue-producing sports going, she said.

"The front door is the problem, and no one is talking about it," she said. "The NCAA has lost its ability to be a regulatory body because this system has gotten so big and there is so much money involved."

Willingham said she complained to no avail to UNC-Chapel Hill athletics and admissions officials for several years about the need to get the athletes up to college-level literacy. Only after the NCAA began looking into questionable benefits given to Tar Heels football players and their relationships with sports agents did she speak out publicly, she said.

"My kids, my family, we were Tar Heels. Who wants to be the one to be the tattletale?" she said, noting that she still would prefer to be known as "Mary from the south side of Chicago" rather than a whistleblower.

After she released her research that found some UNC-Chapel Hill athletes had poor literacy levels, university officials hired outside academics to discredit her findings. She defended her data on Wednesday, and Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said there was "something fishy" with the way university officials handled the dispute.

Willingham and Smith have co-authored "Cheating: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes and the Future of Big Time College Sports" to detail the problems they have found with collegiate athletics. The book is scheduled to be released in March.

"We know that it's not just a UNC problem. We know that it happens across the country," Willingham said.

Smith said universities need to either raise their admission standards again or provide the needed remediation for student-athletes so they can succeed in a college classroom. Academic advisers in athletic departments focus solely on maintaining student-athletes' eligibility, he said, and not on helping them find classes that will improve their education.

That philosophy led to the no-show classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, Smith said.

"(The advisers) found the friendly faculty and the curricular soft spots that would enable those athletes get over the hurdles" posed by the required core classes, he said.


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  • neilg Dec 4, 2014

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    I do agree with a good amount of what you say, but the only scenario where I believe Ms. Willingham deserves an apology is one in which she was bullied or mistreated by her colleagues and administrators. There are allegations that she was mistreated, but we'll have to see what happens with the trial to get any sort of concrete answer on that.

    In the absence of mistreatment, I don't see the need for UNC to apologize to her. An argument could be made that apologies are necessary to the SAs that were "steered" into the AFAM paper classes, but even then they are at least partially responsible for their own course schedules.

    The author of this article needs to edit his statement assuming UNC hired academic experts solely to discredit Willingham or provide the necessary evidence to back it up. Save the speculation for the op-eds.

  • justabumer Dec 4, 2014

    So her book will be out in March? Aha, now I see.

  • HeelFan4Life4 Dec 4, 2014

    I don't, however, agree with the need for an apology. I'm not sure what they should apologize for. They had outside experts look at her research, they didn't agree.

    Besides, in the midst of a lawsuit SHE brought after SHE quit, I'm not sure an apology with be, from a legal perspective, the right thing to do.

  • HeelFan4Life4 Dec 4, 2014

    Totally agree...And the next question is why. Was it because it was helping athletics? Was that a connection?

    Or was it because of the program that was involved. Was the "politically correct" idea to leave that program alone, because of the name.

    Or, quite simply, is it the nature of a University. Very decentralized. Most Faculty are not meant to be Administrators. They don't take that part of their job seriously. Or are not even qualified for the job.

    Fact is, many people can be implicated for lack of oversight. And many of them have already moved on.

  • Objective Scientist Dec 4, 2014

    continuation of last comment: Administrators at every level at UNC... Dept Chairs to the Chancellor... have a "grandiosity" complex and focus on trumpeting their "causes-accomplishments" to the neglect of and/or delegation of day-to-day "nitty-gritty" things that require attention-oversight in the operation of the University! The "notion" that EVERY member of the faculty at UNC MUST be a national/internationally recognized researcher in his/her field, and that administrators from the faculty ranks must be former national recognized researchers/grant writers, etc. is detrimental to the OVERALL operation of the University! UNC is - indeed - a research university and the faculty - in general - must be accomplished/recognized scholars/researchers. However, faculty who are truly talented administrators should be considered for administrative positions... even if their "research resume" is not as illustrious as their colleagues who are research "Super Stars"! Exercise some pragmatism!

  • Objective Scientist Dec 4, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Good comments! Was Willingham's "research" flawless... NO. Was/is her perspective unequivocally correct on everything pertaining to this matter...NO. But... she did and does get a lot of things "right"! IMO - she indeed deserves an "apology", especially from Provost Jim Dean. Instead of the proverbial "follow the money"... follow the "lines of authority/responsibility". Over the two decades of the "scandal"... Crowder, an "administrative assistant" was "under" Nyang'oro, chair of the AFAM Dept, Nyang'oro was "under" various Senior Associate Deans, Senior Associate Deans are "under" the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences who is "under" the Provost who is "under" the Chancellor. That - more or less - was/is the "pecking order", the supervisory responsibility hierarchy within UNC. A case can be made, a case HAS BEEN MADE, that there was a "lack of oversight", a lack of "due diligence", an "abdication of responsibility" at EVERY LEVEL! tbc

  • HeelFan4Life4 Dec 4, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Yep...and it is perpetuated by the local media(N&O and WRAL), plus one segment of West Raleigh that just can't help themselves.

  • neilg Dec 4, 2014

    "After she released her research that found some UNC-Chapel Hill athletes had poor literacy levels, university officials hired outside academics to discredit her findings."

    It is pure speculation to assume UNC's motivation behind hiring outside academics was to "discredit her findings." Such poor journalism to just assume this without any supporting evidence.

    I don't doubt Ms. Willingham's admirable intentions, however, the data she used to attempt to assess literacy was proven to be inadequate for those purposes, therefore rendering her results inaccurate.

    Does this absolve UNC? Of course not, but this attempt to paint everyone associated with UNC as evil and everyone with Willingham and Paper Class Inc. as infallible is ridiculous.

  • KT says 35 > 7 Dec 4, 2014

    kerliner is going to try to settle this lawsuit as early as possible. They don't want records opened to subpoena power so the whole world can see their cesspool.

  • Terry Lightfoot Dec 4, 2014
    user avatar

    Interesting that UNC History professor threw his school under the bus - again - with his lame opening joke about his paper classes.
    Willingham is right about one thing - the NCAA is an inept organization because big money is involved - so big that there is no going back to an MIT type athletic program. It's a $$ making machine that can't be stopped and I believe we see paid student athletes in the next 10 years.