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Whistleblower Calls For Reform In Educating Athletes At UNC

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UNC-Chapel Hill

Mary Willingham is a polarizing name in Chapel Hill these days. The academic advisor at UNC says a majority of football and men’s basketball players are woefully underprepared for the college classroom. University administrators dispute those claims. As the credibility of Willingham’s findings has been called into question, she’s asking how universities can better educate these young men.

The worlds of academics and big-time athletics often operate independently with little overlap. In recent weeks at UNC the two have converged, or maybe more accurately, collided.  

"I have talked to many of them now, and they tell me that their degrees, if they even got one, are worthless," said Willingham, an instructor and academic advisor. She estimates working with about 500 athletes between 2003 and 2010.

"I was part of that corruption. I can still see all of their faces. I let them down. We let them down as an institution." - Mary Willingham

"I was part of that corruption. I can still see all of their faces. I let them down. We let them down as an institution,” she added.

Willingham no longer works with athletes. She blew the whistle on no-show African and Afro-American studies courses at the school more than a year ago. Now she’s speaking out again. Willingham claims about one fourth of the athletes at Chapel Hill enter woefully underprepared.

"So much so that when they sit in their first class they don’t necessarily understand what is happening in that class. It would be a lot like sending me to medical school tomorrow and expecting me to keep-up, when I really don’t have a background that supports that, and I would probably need a couple of years to get prepared if I could even do it, for the academic rigor of a medical school," Willingham said.

She’s talking specifically about football and men’s basketball players. Willingham decided to do some research, or as she calls it – a descriptive analysis. Collaborating with a clinical psychologist she had 183 of the football and men’s basketball players she worked with take a standardized exam. Willingham says the cognitive psychologist did the testing and assessment. Willingham then used a sliding scale to draw a connection between performance on the test and reading level. She says 60-percent of the athletes tested are reading between a fourth and 8th grade level; and almost 10-percent are reading at or below a third grade level.

"I am not a researcher. I still would not classify myself as a researcher. I just don’t see the problem with what I did. I filed all the correct paper work. I kept filing it and if the IRB office had questions they should have asked me more questions specifically about what I was doing,” Willingham said.

The IRB is the Institutional Review Board. Daniel Nelson is the director of that office. He respectfully declined a recorded interview, but answered questions about this matter.  Nelson says Willingham registered her work with that office. She never asked for, or received IRB approval, because she didn’t think she needed it. However, Willingham’s data involved human subjects. And since people can be identified she should have sought IRB approval for her research. She thinks the IRB should have told her to apply. The IRB says her initial proposal included faulty or incomplete information.  It has been widely reported Willingham has been stripped of her research approval. But Nelson notes, she never had approval, so there is nothing to suspend. Willingham met with the IRB last week to better understand the office’s practices and policies.

Meanwhile, the University has criticized Willingham’s research practices and findings. They disagree with her correlation between standardized test scores and reading comprehension. The school responded by releasing its own analysis of the admissions of athletes during an eight year period. It says 97-percent of those students are at the reading threshold other media have used as a benchmark. 

WUNC asked for comment from UNC administrators, but officials were unable to arrange an interview over the past week when this story was reported and produced.

Chancellor Carol Folt did address the issue when she spoke to the Board of Trustees last week.

"And although I believe we're still in the early stages of reform we have made significant changes in academic policies and new procedures that are making real differences." - Carol Folt

"And although I believe we’re still in the early stages of reform we have made significant changes in academic policies and new procedures that are making real differences," Folt said.

Some of these steps include more thorough independent studies, review of teaching assignments, classroom audits and spot checks for attendance and new instructions for structuring course syllabi. Willingham says these ultimately amount to baby steps.

Folt says scrutiny is to be expected in the wake of the scandal in the African and Afro-American Studies department, as well as another scandal related to sports agents. The academic saga led to an independent investigation of the school. The agent controversy led to football coach Butch Davis being fired. Athletic Director Dick Baddour and Chancellor Holden Thorpe resigned shortly after that saga. Both scandals have led to indictments of individuals involved.

"The scrutiny that is taking place here is of course part of a larger national conversation about the role and impact of college sports and even further about the commitment schools are making to insure that students are receiving the support they need to success in the classroom, to advance to graduation as well as to succeed on the playing field," Folt said.

That lucrative playing field has grown in recent years with the proliferation of cable TV. College sports is a multi-billion dollar a year industry; and the national conversation Folt mentioned revolves around fundamental questions of amateurism, the responsibility of universities in educating these athletes, the role of the NCAA and whether or not athletes should be in anyway compensated. These questions are older than the current athletes themselves.

"UNC's initial response to all these charges has been stonewall and deny, stonewall and deny, right out of the Richard Nixon playbook." - Greg Easterbrook

"UNC’s initial response to all these charges has been stonewall and deny, stonewall and deny, right out of the Richard Nixon playbook," said Gregg Easterbrook, an author of nine books, lecturer, sports writer and editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

He says there is so much money involved that there is an incentive to cheat.

"It’s really about money and pretends to be about academics, at least in football and men’s basketball it’s about money. The entire system is built on dishonesty. So you’re asking why does this system that is constructed around living lies not telling the truth, well you’ve kind of answered your own question," Easterbrook said.

Also at the heart of this conversation is a federal antitrust class action lawsuit filed against the NCAA by a former All-American basketball player from UCLA. At stake are billions of dollars and potentially major reform as to how amateur athletes are used in a commercial setting. Willingham was named as a witness in that lawsuit last week. She is also speaking with HBO, ESPN and CBS, and is working on a book. 

Willingham says she’s going to remain vocal and that the issue isn’t going away. 

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
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