Athletics and academics at UNC — a different view

A UNC graduate (’08 undergrad and ’12 masters) responds to my post about the resignation of Mary Willingham. Ms. Willingham, an academic counselor at the University, blew the whistle on fake classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. She also alleges that many of the University’s football and basketball players cannot read at even close to a college level. Here is our reader’s response to my post:

I have followed the UNC story very closely and with admittedly blue-tinted glasses; however, I have seen enough evidence to justify my skepticism about how the national media has reported the issue. There are several key facts that, as I read your story, I had to assume you were not aware of.

The “no-show” classes constantly discussed often get lumped in with “paper” classes when people talk about it. There are some legitimate classes that are nothing but preparing a paper. As a history and political science double major, I took one in each area. The class met but had no real assignments except an extensive research paper.

There were, however, no-show classes in the African-American studies department where a professor realized he could make a lot of money and do little (to no) work. Athletes of course took the classes as word spread about their ease (students appeared to have often turned in papers but they were never actually graded) but so did other groups such as specific fraternities. Just like on any college campus, social groups identified easy courses to take and told their friends about them. Yes it was wrong but it was not an athletic issue – it was an issue of a rogue department (small department lacking oversight). [Editor’s note: This analysis is similar to mine]

Ms. Willingham has incorrectly obtained the data she used to make her claims [regarding the literacy of UNC basketball and football players] and has incorrectly read the data she used to make false claims which cannot be verified. This is most likely what led her to resign – the fact that she cannot support her methods or her conclusions.

The professor supporting Ms. Willingham is conveniently writing a book with her. This has become more about their names and their ability to become. . .national expert[s] than it is about the truth. Professor Smith has been a vocal critic the entire time of anything associated with this but has gone beyond that to becoming a supporter of Ms. Willingham regardless of where the facts lead.

UNC has had multiple independent reviews done by multiple different groups in an effort to appease the critics. Each review keeps coming to the same conclusion and the critics keep saying the review was biased. When will people realize that what they want to find just doesn’t exist?

Yes there was wrong doing. And right or wrong, many people have been fired as a result of all of this. The academic issues were actually initially uncovered by UNC when they did an investigation into some football players who accepted illegal benefits from people including an academic tutor. Several students got dragged through the mess and held out of games and were found innocent, others were found guilty of offenses such as sleeping on the couch of a former player turned mentor. Others, however, had done wrong and were never allowed to play again for UNC.

The head coach was fired, the AD resigned and the former chancellor resigned. As a result, there is a new AD, a new head coach (and all new assistant coaches) and no players involved are still on the team. Charges have been pressed against the professor with the fake classes as he was breaking the law charging for courses that were not taught. . . .

[T]here is a story here but it is not the one the national media presents. Instead, we should question lack of oversight in specific “untouchable” departments, what we should expect of student-athletes who are spending well over 20 hours a week preparing for their sport, the system of public education and the level of preparation students are actually receiving, the media’s willingness to run with a story without researching the facts.

In fairness to Professor Smith, I note that he made it clear in the post I linked to that he does not accept all of Willingham’s allegations, and that he regards some of the criticism of her as “understandable” and, as I read his post, legitimate.

In fairness to Ms. Willingham, I would not assume that she resigned because “she cannot defend her methods or her conclusions.” It seems equally or more likely that she resigned because she was attacked by the University’s chancellor, Carol Folt, and/or because she concluded that Folt isn’t interested in addressing the problems Willingham believes exist.

I should also note that, at least according to Professor Smith, the experts who questioned Willingham’s statistical analysis did so based on “partial and imperfect information.” I take no position on this dispute.

Finally, I note that Willingham’s experience as an academic counselor gives her familiarity with the reading skill levels of at least some UNC athletes. One of her most explosive allegations is that she tutored a basketball player who basically could not read. According to Professor Smith, the University responded by attacking her credibility without having contacted her to find out the basis for and the details of her claims.

However, Willingham’s statistical claims do seem open to serious question, and the statistics do matter. Our reader has, I think, shown why skepticism is warranted about media coverage of certain important aspects of this story.

We will keep an eye on the story including any resolution of the statistical dispute and any further involvement by Carol Folt. Her time at Dartmouth convinces me that skepticism is warranted as to Folt’s good faith.

Meanwhile, I thank our reader for his valuable comments.

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