Mary Willingham’s Reprieve

By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor

Mary-Willingham-UNCUniversity of North Carolina  clinical instructor and academic advisor Mary Willingham got a reprieve of sorts last week. UNC Chancellor Carol Folt admitted for the first time to the school’s board of trustees that the university had “failed students for years” by offering bogus classes, forging professors’ names and changing grades to keep athletes eligible. Jettisoning the party line that 2012’s scandal in the African and Afro-American Studies Department which resulted in an indictment against a UNC professor for fraud was merely an isolated instance, Folt said “We also accept the fact that there was a failure in academic oversight for years that permitted this to continue.This, too, was wrong. And it has undermined our integrity and our reputation.”

Ya think?

Sitting at home, her research screeched to a halt on some bureaucratic pretext whereby the university’s medical school’s human research review panel must determine if privately reviewing Johnny’s reading scores will somehow permanently scar his emotional  well-being, Mary Willingham must have smiled. But it was a sad smile. Mary had been reprimanded by troglodyte fans both inside and outside of the UNC administration for the audacious act of laying truth at the feet of power. Mary had taken on the hoariest (maybe “whoriest” is the better choice of words) of gods on many major college campuses today — the big, bad revenue sports.

Willingham’s preliminary figures found that of 183 football and basketball players at UNC from 2004-12,  60 percent were reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level.  Prof. Willingham even encountered athletes who could not read or write at all when she worked as an academic tutor to the athletic department where she would do such scholarly work as helping football players sound out the word “Wis-con-sin.” That was exactly what UNC’s administration, still reeling from the African and Afro-American Studies Department scandal, didn’t want to hear.

The counter-revolution sprang into action. UNC President Thomas Ross immediately authorized a statement calling Willingham’s work “unfair”:

“We do not believe that claim and find it patently unfair to the many student-athletes who have worked hard in the classroom and on the court and represented our University with distinction,” the statement said. “Our students have earned their place at Carolina and we respect what they bring to the University both academically and athletically.”

Provost  James Dean called her an outright liar — for a moment at least. “She’s said that our students can’t read, our athletes can’t read, and that’s a lie.” Later in the interview for the article with Business Week, Dean thought better of his assessment and  said he had misspoken and doesn’t think that she’s a liar. Well which is it my dear dean?

UNC head basketball coached tutted away  the research with his own down-home, anecdotal, unbiased “evidence” and a testimonial: “It’s totally unfair,” Williams said. “I’m really proud of the kids we’ve brought in here. … We haven’t brought anybody in like that. We’ve had one senior since I’ve been here that did not graduate. Anybody can make any statement they want to make but that is not fair. The University of North Carolina doesn’t do that. The University of North Carolina doesn’t stand for that.”

Well, judging by Folt’s admission before the school’s governing body, UNC does — or at least did — stand for that. And beyond merely standing for “that,” it actively encouraged it. How is it possible that a professor running an academic department allows classes that never meet, assigns grades without merit, and gets paid for doing nothing for years and no one in the UNC administration knew about it?  That’s just not credible.

In addition, the athletic department is mum on its role in steering kids into the African-American studies program.  Of course that clarion of clarity,  Provost Dean promises to launch an investigation into “whether student-athletes were ‘clustering’ in departments or classes that were supposed to have easy grades and to see whether there were any other forces or personalities behind the scandal,” according to CNN. We’ll wait for that little bit of truth for a long, long time, I’m betting.

If Dean wanted to short-cut the investigation he could just ask former UNC football star Michael McAdoo  who told the Raleigh News & Observer that  school academic advisors guided him to four of the department’s no-show classes in what he called “a scam.” McAdoo is now academically ineligible to return to UNC. Imagine that?

Dean could also ask Mary Willingham who used to be one of those academic advisors to the athletic department:

“We had a countless number of athletes that I worked with during my tenure—nearly seven years—in the program that left without a real degree,” Willingham said. “We still don’t talk about those guys. They took all these bogus paper classes, and they left the university still woefully underprepared for probably even a high school. That’s wrong, and we owe them. We need to bring them back, and we need to offer them the possibility of a real, legitimate education. That’s what we promised them in the first place.”

UNC is finally letting out some data in dribbles and drabs even as it refuses to let Willingham complete her research.  Two weeks ago UNC disclosed that 34 football or basketball players since 2004 scored below a 400 on the SAT verbal test, or below a 16 on the ACT reading and English test. At those levels, a student would not be able to read a college text book. How then did they stay eligible one has to wonder?

Just for the record, Mary Willingham is not saying that kids with poor academic credentials should be barred from UNC’s gates.  She’s simply saying a school owes them more than room, books they will never read, and a football jersey. “I’ve never said that athletes or any students at Carolina don’t belong at Carolina,” Willingham said. “It’s a public university; it’s a university of the people. But I think if we’re going to take students in, then we need to meet them where they’re at academically and bring them along. That’s all students.”

I would have thought that at an institution like UNC those sentiments would be self-evident. Silly me.

Source: CNN; Chapelboro

~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor

24 thoughts on “Mary Willingham’s Reprieve

  1. Mespo,

    Thank you for the uppity date….. Before I forget…. I best not comment more, as white privilege pervades or is that skews my thinking……

  2. Very good article. This topic should be on first base in every state in the Union. We are absolute idiots to have Division I sports in colleges and so called universities. Every tax payer should challenge the lie that sports are revenue producers for colleges and so called universities. We need to have some forensic accounting to put the lie on the table. Find every penny spent on every stadium, every parking lot, every dorm, every kindergarten required for these illiterates who dribble a ball or tackle some guy with a helmet on and still get a concussion. North Carolina is no better off than South Carolina because their basketball team at UNC is better than some dumbschmuck baseketball team at a so called college or university in South Carolina. The people of the Great State of Pennsylvania would be better off if they ended all Division I or Division II sports at State Penn.

  3. This issue started way before college for these athletes. If they were reading at a third or fourth grade level through middle school and high school, how did they maintain academic eligibility through those years? The scandal at the university level is where it becomes visible. Consider all those other kids who weren’t quite good enough for college ball, but got the same sort of pass in high school. They are even more woefully neglected.

  4. The alleged actions seem to devalue the degrees of all students not just the athletes involved.

    I wonder if there is a cause of action by individuals or groups of students against university administrators.

    I think it is pretty clear investigation of this mess will be fought by administrators because these practices cannot stand the light of day.

    I have no evidence but I think it is a safe bet this kind of stuff goes on at most universities which have teams participating in major (that is money making) sports.

  5. Mespo, This is worthy of the inspiring series you have. Roy Williams is like virtually all big time coaches, a slick, lying sack o’ shit. Just like politicians.

  6. This is merely part of the American problem regarding public education. These kids, regardless of whether or not they are potential sports stars, are shuffled along under the idiotic and simplistic jingoes such as ‘no child left behind’. While teaching the worst of the worst in the 4th and 6th grades, I saw kids that had removed themselves from the system and yet received no attention from the system. They were failed and failed.

    If they can play football, however, they will be nurtured and tutored to make it to the pros. They will make buckets of money for the university that lets them in and eventually for themselves if they make it to the pros. For everyone of them that gets drafted, how many are there that leave with a useless degree?

    Baseball and hockey, although not exempt from this fairytale, are better examples of how it should be done. The universities are not so rabid and compromising regarding the academic requirements of baseball and hockey scholarships. A large percentage of pro baseball and hockey players come up without the university scholarship. They play and are scouted in high school, play for junior teams and then farm teams. It is an apprenticeship of sorts and perhaps more fitting.

    Somehow the idea of the amateur and the academic producing something of a role model for society became perverted with football and basketball. Many players do stand for that role model but most are simply another sort of professional athlete.

    Perhaps it is time to revisit what it means to be an amateur. Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, while studying to be a doctor, no scholarship, only a pure sense of drive and accomplishment. The captain of the Canadian gold medal hockey team in Calgary was also a med student, no scholarship, no designs at a career in the pros, only drive and a sense of accomplishment.

    The olympics have deteriorated to a circus. College sports in the US are more a part of professional sports. A farm team for a pro baseball team is exactly that. A farm team for a pro football team is a university or a college. There is a stronger similarity to culturing and nurturing gladiators for blood sports in the arena than the so called academic amateur athlete.

    Hey, we all love to see them beat each other to a pulp. But, couldn’t we get that without the denigration of our so called schools of higher learning?

  7. nick:

    “Roy Williams is like virtually all big time coaches, a slick, lying sack o’ shit. Just like politicians.”


    Is there really any difference?

  8. @isaac

    At last the normal pro players get paid.

    These folks get only a degree which don’t represents really their real competences and thus keep being cheated from a real education (why illiterate children get admitted in the junior high school?); moreover the degrees of those really deservoing them are devaluated.

  9. mespo727272


    “Roy Williams is like virtually all big time coaches, a slick, lying sack o’ shit. Just like politicians.”


    Is there really any difference?

    There it is.

    The highest paid public employees in most states by far are not teachers of academics:

    The graphic (click to enlarge) map of the U.S. shows the highest paid public officials state by state, which surprisingly are coaches of sports teams rather than scientists –which gives us a clue as to why our science is lacking.

    Today let’s focus on why that is dangerous.

    (Ecosystems & Microbes). It is politicians who allow this to happen, as well as those Mary Willingham has taken to task.

    Your question to Nick (“Is there really any difference?“) would seem to require the answer “no.”

  10. Some of these student athletes are being exploited. Essentially unpaid for their labor on the dream they might go on to professional sports, a low statistical possibility, and in return not property educated to become as successful in their adult lives. All this while the university makes millions of their backs.

  11. Dogs can understand humans. If the dog was an American human in a prior life he can understand humans speaking English as he sits around and looks like a dumb dog. Yesterday two guys at the marina were debating whom to hire for a job in their factory here in Florida. One candidate was from University of Chicago and the other from UNC. The discussion moved to this new revelation. They were sort of set on hiring the Chicago woman when they left out of dog’s ear. Last week they were itchinBay about some guy they hired from State Penn. They said he was “bent” but I don’t know what they meant about that.

    I know one thing. It will be a long day before UNC climbs out of this ditch.

  12. It’s not just football jerseys they’re giving away. There have been 18 sports implicated so far, including UNC’s God of all Gods men’s basketball.

  13. and when the fake classes werent enough to keep these guys eligible, no problem… they just had someone forge transcripts and adjust grades to maintain eligibility. this has all been out there for months but nobody seemed to care.

    unc basicaly has done whatever they want for decades and nobody has questioned them until now. where most institutions would be embarassed and outraged at such a scandal, all we get from unc is arrogance and denial

  14. Ethicist – exactly! The entire “educational system” (actually “indoctrination” would be more accurate) is at fault and it isn’t getting any better (as shown by the testing internationally compared to other systems). Our history text books are wishy-washy inaccuracies that never touch on any of the points that could make us “look bad” (oh, like Christopher Columbus as hero, the conquering European settlers as “manifest destiny” – yeah, right up to the effing atom bombs dropped on Japan and all the other hegemonic wars for total U.S. domination); economics is complete capitalist nonsense and is leading to environmental collapse; and the math and sciences are only promoted so that they can be misused to further the wealth gathering of the elite. You’ll note that in the meantime the arts have been all but cut from the curriculum and physical education is a joke (bowling is now okay to substitute for actual exercise) – leading to the obesity epidemic not improving much. The dropout rate is about the same every year as kids give up on the antiquated rigid structure and jump ship as soon as they can. At least one author considers our education system a pipeline to prison due to its inability to prepare students for the world in which they’ll be living.

  15. Excellent post, mespo. Ms. Willingham has been unfairly criticized for revealing the myth of the “student-athlete.”

  16. This situation is now the case for all Div. I schools. Money has completely infected intercollegiate sports.

    It will stop only when we get rid of athletic scholarships and intercollegiate sports.

    Students should be going to school for an education period.

    Anything more than intramural sports – just for the physical fitness and mental well being of the students – will always give rise to these sorts of scandals.

    Short of these measures, we might as well just get used to it and know that this is what we are supporting whenever we watch any intercollegiate matchup.

  17. SJE,

    You mean besides the ones that already occurred and uncovered the mess several years ago?

    If half of the professionally outraged people would actually take the time to look at the facts of the situation and of ms. Willingham’s “research”, maybe we could have a worthwhile discussion on a globally worthy topic rather then just taking an opportunity to take free shots at jocks and the NCAA.

  18. Jonathan Turley are you KIDDING me with this: “her research screeched to a halt on some bureaucratic pretext whereby the university’s medical school’s human research review panel must determine if privately reviewing Johnny’s reading scores will somehow permanently scar his emotional well-being”

    Some bureaucratic pretext? I am absolutely shocked and disappointed that you would take this stance. Do you have any concept of what you are saying here? Of all people to crap on the sanctity legal protection of individuals privacy and reputations from “research” studies on human subjects, I never thought you would fall for such nonsense. This is about selling books, politically driven agendas, and making headlines, it has nothing to do with helping student athletes. Further, do you expect UNC to simply allow Willingham’s research to continue in open violation of standard IRB processes because it suits your fancy? You need to look a little closer at this situation.

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