By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor
University 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.”
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.
~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor