In Fake Classes Scandal, UNC Fails Its Athletes—and Whistle-Blower

The fake classes scandal at Chapel Hill and the $16 billion business of college athletics

Sitting in Memorial Hall at the heart of the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina, Mary Willingham wondered what William Friday would want her to do. Friday’s memorial service in October 2012 drew a large and reverent audience: scholars of the humanities and sciences, national political figures, and university staff members such as Willingham, who’d spent the previous decade tutoring athletes and other undergraduates in need of remedial reading help. The tribute to Friday, president of the state university system from 1956 to 1986, reflected the accomplishments and contradictions of the institution he embodied. Slaves helped build UNC, the nation’s first public university, which opened in 1795. The original Memorial Hall, dedicated in 1885, honored students and faculty who’d died defending the Confederacy. Taking office only two years after the Supreme Court ordered an end to “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education, Friday pushed for desegregation in the face of sometimes-violent opposition. Under his stewardship, Chapel Hill earned a reputation for excellence and became a powerhouse in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

As she listened to the eulogies, Willingham pondered another aspect of Friday’s legacy. In his last decades he’d tried to stir discussion about whether commercialized intercollegiate athletics was distorting higher education. That’s why Willingham had approached Friday in his 92nd and final year. In private conversations, she’d told him about her mounting anxiety that rather than educating its recruited athletes, UNC was playing a shell game to keep them from needing to study at all. She’d told him about basketball and football stars who read at a grade school level. She confessed that she’d helped steer some of these young men—many of them black—into lecture classes that never met. Worst of all, given Carolina’s racial history, the phony courses were offered in the black studies department.

Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- In 2012, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill educator Mary Willingham blew the whistle on a fraudulent system designed to pass athletes without educating them. The university has taken some actions to correct this but Willingham says it's still not enough. (Source: Bloomberg)

Acting as an unnamed source, Willingham had been feeding information since 2011 about academic fraud to a reporter with the News & Observer in Raleigh. The coverage had put UNC on the defensive. But rather than seriously investigate the connection between sports and classroom corruption, top university administrators used vague committee reports to obfuscate the issue. Willingham’s conversations with the elderly Friday hadn’t addressed the tradecraft of whistle-blowing. Still, he’d encouraged her to act on her concerns. “At his memorial,” she says, “I realized I had to speak up.” In November 2012, she went public with what she knew.

College sports is a $16 billion business, and it coexists uneasily with its host—nonprofit, tax-exempt institutions dedicated to education and research. The tension has become acute at UNC, in large part because of Willingham’s decision at Friday’s memorial service. What she disclosed has devastated UNC’s image of itself and may potentially hobble its athletic program. Beginning in the 1990s and continuing at least through 2011, UNC’s Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies offered more than 200 lecture courses that never met. The department also sponsored hundreds of independent study classes of equally dubious value. Internal reviews have identified forged faculty signatures and more than 500 grades changed without authorization. The students affected were disproportionately football and basketball players.

“I was part of something that I came to be ashamed of,” says Willingham. “We weren’t serving the kids. We weren’t educating them properly. We were pushing them toward graduation, and that’s not the same as giving them an education.” Last summer she was stripped of her supervisory title—an action she’s appealing as retaliatory. In January senior UNC officials took the further step of publicly condemning her for suggesting that some football and basketball stars couldn’t read well enough to get through college classes honestly.

While her outspokenness and the vilification it brought make Willingham unique, her role as a secret enabler of NCAA Inc. is hardly unusual. Every Division I sports power employs low-profile advisers like Willingham without whom the facade of academic eligibility would swiftly collapse, says Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

“We pretend,” he says, “that it’s feasible to recruit high school graduates with minimal academic qualifications, give them a full-time job as a football or basketball player at a Division I NCAA school, and somehow have them get up to college-level reading and writing skills at the same time that they’re enrolled in college-level classes.” Willingham’s experience, Southall adds, shows how “we’re all kidding ourselves.” What’s more, in response to escalating demands that undergraduate athletes deserve pay for their services, the NCAA argues that a scholarship and degree are sufficient compensation. The NCAA position crumbles, however, if the parchment represents little or no real education.
Mary and Chuck Willingham didn’t have ties to Chapel Hill when they arrived in 1999. “We just thought this was a great place to raise a family,” Mary, now 52, says. “I love being around smart people, and there are a ton of them in Chapel Hill.”

Willingham: “I had to speak up”
Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek
The Willinghams met in the late 1980s at Amgen, the California biotech company. Chuck worked in finance, Mary in human resources. She’d gone into HR straight out of Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit school in her hometown. She worked at Mobil and the Arthur Young accounting firm before landing at Amgen. “We were lucky,” she says. “We got together just as the biotech boom took off. There were stock options. We did well.”

Once they’d settled in Chapel Hill, some of the Amgen windfall went into a small chain of restaurants Chuck opened. Mary earned a teaching degree and became a reading tutor in the public schools. A few years later, on a lark, she applied for a job at UNC. To her delight, the university hired her in 2003 as a $33,000-a-year staff member in the athletics department. “Everyone in Chapel Hill wants to work at UNC,” she says. “The benefits are great, and you’re part of the in-club.”

Soon she was dressing her three children—two sons and a daughter—in Carolina blue for Christmas card photographs. Chuck and the kids became loyal Tar Heels fans. (The nickname refers to the tar and pitch extracted since Colonial times from Carolina pine trees. During the Civil War, the state’s troops were called “tar heels.”) A dedicated runner with a lean physique, Mary didn’t relish football or basketball, but she loved the gracious red-brick campus and the solidarity that bound her family to the place where they lived.

“The Carolina Way,” an ethos of pride, achievement, and integrity, is taken quite seriously in Chapel Hill. UNC counts among its alumni James Polk, U.S. president from 1845 to 1849; novelists Thomas Wolfe and Russell Banks; and such business leaders as Hugh McColl, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Bank of America, and Peter Grauer, chairman of Bloomberg LP, owner of Bloomberg Businessweek. Today the school enrolls 18,000 undergraduates and an additional 11,000 graduate and professional school students.

What most people know about Carolina, though, is basketball. The 36-year reign of coach Dean Smith, from 1961 to 1997, is legendary. Michael Jordan led the team to an NCAA title in March 1982 and went on to win six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls. All told, UNC has won five NCAA tournaments, most recently in 2005 and 2009 under current coach Roy Williams.

“I grew up in Los Angeles a total nut for sports,” says Chuck. “It’s different here. The intensity in a small town like Chapel Hill when you get 60,000 people in for a football game or 22,000 in the Dean Dome for basketball—it’s like something I’d never seen before.”

Conditioned by her HR training, Mary quickly assessed the 800 varsity athletes she was hired to assist. “Four hundred of them at any given time are on the [Atlantic Coast Conference] honor roll or the UNC dean’s list,” she says. “They’re doing great.” Most of these play “nonrevenue sports,” such as soccer, tennis, or field hockey. In NCAA lingo, revenue sports are men’s football and basketball—the ones that generate lucrative TV and licensing fees and ticket sales. Of the remaining 400 UNC athletes, Willingham continues, “another 200 are doing OK, and about 150 to 200 are underperforming—some of them badly underperforming. Most of the last group are playing football or men’s or women’s basketball.”

This distribution shouldn’t surprise anyone. UNC officials acknowledge that historically they’ve enrolled 160 athletes a year based partly on their “special talent.” The highest priorities are football and basketball recruits. An additional 40 special-talent slots are allotted for music and drama.

In 2012, UNC reported total sports revenue of $82.4 million, offset by expenses of $81.9 million. According to NCAA figures analyzed by Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center and USA Today, UNC ranked 25th on a revenue list headed by the University of Texas at Austin, with $163.3 million.

During the seven years Willingham counseled athletes, UNC’s Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes reported to the athletic director. The program’s dozen advisers divide up the 28 varsity teams, with the lion’s share of attention going to football and men’s basketball. A couple of “learning specialists,” including Willingham, serve as floating tutors, focusing on the players most in need. A separate academic support program handles all other undergraduates.

In the mornings, Willingham met one-on-one with basketball and football players. “We would work together on reading or writing skills” usually related to class assignments, she says. “It was spoon-feeding the information in, or getting the information out.” After the athletes spent the afternoon lifting weights and practicing, Willingham supervised evening study halls. On game days and during road trips, tutoring ground to a halt.

Willingham noticed that some highly recruited revenue-sport athletes lacked basic literacy skills. She won’t discuss individuals by name but will say that beginning in 2003, she taught members of the football and basketball team to sound out multisyllable words and piece together simple sentences. Other athletes who could read somewhat better wanted her help so they could more easily follow sports news online. Willingham says that of the undergraduate sports stars who accepted tutoring—not all did—a number made substantial progress. But the notion that athletes with elementary school skills “would be able to write papers for college classes,” she says, “just made no sense.”

A female varsity basketball player showed her a class paper that “was obviously a cut-and-paste job she’d copied from somewhere,” Willingham says. A colleague advised Willingham to allow the young woman to submit the paper for credit, and it received a B. “I came home and told Chuck, but I didn’t stop it,” she says.

When she asked more experienced colleagues how to handle their lagging charges, she was told not to lose any sleep. Willingham became, in effect, “an eligibility specialist,” she says, “knowing just how much I could get away with in helping these guys, without actually doing the work for them.”

Football players whispered to her about a computer hard drive maintained by the team that contained a bank of term papers. Athletes slightly altered and submitted the inventoried papers for course credit. “There’s no way the professors could not have noticed the same papers coming in from athletes,” she says.

By 2005 she’d learned something was seriously awry in the black studies department. Julius Nyang’oro, a native of Tanzania who chaired the department until 2011, offered lecture courses on topics such as Swahili and black history, but the lectures never happened. Athletes and their academic advisers referred to the no-show classes as “paper classes” because all that was required was a single 20-page paper. “We put athletes in the paper classes specifically because they didn’t meet,” Willingham says. “Any kind of paper got an A or a B grade. It wasn’t clear whether anyone was even reading the papers.”

A related phenomenon was the profusion of independent study classes that were supposedly tailored to individual students. Nyang’oro supervised hundreds of independent studies, even though he spent extended periods traveling abroad, Willingham says. In 2004-05 alone, members of UNC’s NCAA championship men’s basketball team enrolled in 15 independent studies. Of the 15 players on that squad who declared a major, six listed black studies. Five majored in communication studies.

In 2006, UNC announced a major push to improve its football program, including the hiring of former NFL coach Paul “Butch” Davis Jr. “I knew what that meant,” Willingham says. “Recruiting would get more aggressive under Butch Davis, and we’d see more top players who couldn’t do college class work.” Feeling as if she were “drowning,” Willingham confronted Dick Baddour, then the university’s athletic director, at a department meeting. She asked him whether he recognized that making football more competitive would result in graduation rates declining. “He just said yes,” she recalls. Baddour says he doesn’t recall the exchange. Because of his concern for academics, he adds, “I am confident I did not respond as she indicated.”

In the summer of 2009, after the men’s basketball team won another NCAA championship, a new adviser took charge of the squad’s academic affairs. In the fall, basketball player enrollments in paper courses and independent studies declined drastically. “That was encouraging,” says Willingham. The adviser to the basketball team, Jenn Townsend, still works at UNC but didn’t respond to interview requests.

In contrast, Willingham says, football players were continuing to sign up in large numbers for paper classes. Moreover, in connection with a master’s degree in liberal studies she earned in 2009 from the Greensboro branch of UNC, Willingham had begun analyzing diagnostic tests of incoming athletes. The statistics, she says, confirmed her impression that some football and basketball recruits had the literacy skills of grade school students. “How could we in good conscience place them in no-show classes with a 20-page paper?” she recalls asking herself. “And how could they get Bs and As?” In 2010 she transferred to the general undergrad academic counseling program.

The same year Willingham stepped away from athletics tutoring, the UNC football program erupted in scandal. Most of the initial headlines concerned NCAA inquiries into improper financial benefits provided to players. There were also academic violations. A defensive star named Michael McAdoo got pulled from competition because an undergraduate tutor had provided him with excessive help on term papers. The McAdoo case was the first public hint of widespread academic fraud.

McAdoo had taken an intermediate Swahili class offered by Nyang’oro. As part of a lawsuit McAdoo filed in 2011 seeking reinstatement to the football team, his Swahili paper—written in English—became public. Fans of North Carolina State, a bitter UNC rival, noted online that McAdoo seemed to have plagiarized much of his work. (McAdoo, through a spokesman, declined to comment.) This caught the attention of News & Observer reporter Dan Kane, whose inquiries revealed that lectures supposedly offered for the Swahili class never happened. Kane began investigating rumors of other no-show classes. He interviewed Willingham, who insisted at first on anonymity because she wanted to keep her job. That changed after William Friday’s October 2012 memorial service.
By the time Willingham went public, UNC had organized a series of committees to review the black studies department. She, however, saw the overlapping inquiries as a shield and not a serious investigation. The reputational bleeding had already been heavy: In 2011, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp fired Davis as football coach and accepted the early retirement of athletic director Baddour, who says he wanted his replacement to select the new football coach. Thorp then announced that in penance for the football debacle, he would step down, too.

In December 2012, former North Carolina Governor James Martin announced the results of an internal investigation the university had asked him to oversee and which he touted as conclusive. Looking back to the mid-1990s, Martin found 216 corrupted courses, up from an earlier estimate of 54. He also identified 560 grade changes he suspected were unauthorized. A former chemistry professor at Davidson College, Martin acknowledged that athletes were enrolled disproportionately in UNC’s problematic classes. He stressed, though, that he found more nonathletes than athletes in the phony classes. This led to his main finding: “This was not an athletic scandal,” he said. “It was an academic scandal.”

Martin also emphasized that the corruption was limited to the black studies department, although it wasn’t clear how he’d reached that particular conclusion. Nyang’oro, who hadn’t explained himself publicly, had resigned. Martin said the corruption began and ended with the mysterious ex-professor and a department aide, who’d also left the university.

Jay Smith, a professor of early-modern French history at UNC, studied each university-sponsored report as it appeared. A rare academic in Chapel Hill who openly expresses unease about the influence of revenue sports, he publicly supported Willingham. “The obvious question raised by all the so-called investigations was why [the university was] so determined to exonerate the athletic department when Mary was providing first-person evidence that athletic eligibility was the motive behind the academic fraud,” he says. “The answer, I’m afraid, is that we’re terrified at the prospect of having to go back and look” at whether members of the 2005 and 2009 championship basketball teams were eligible only because they took bogus classes.

That’s not an idle anxiety. In 2009 the NCAA retroactively vacated 12 victories by the Florida State Seminoles as punishment for the ghostwriting of term papers and tests for football team members. The NCAA stripped the University of Memphis of its entire 2007-08 season, including a run to the NCAA men’s basketball finals, because of academic fraud: Memphis star Derrick Rose, now with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, had his SAT scores retroactively invalidated after allegations that someone else had taken the entrance exam for him.

So far the NCAA has refrained from investigating the black studies fraud, apparently accepting UNC’s contention that the problem had nothing to do with athletics. The fear in Chapel Hill that the NCAA might change its mind is normally discussed in hushed tones. Last May, though, former Chancellor James Moeser didn’t restrain himself in an interview with Chapel Hill Magazine. Condemning media coverage of the scandal, he said of journalists: “I think they target people, and they take pleasure in bringing people down. I think their real goal here was to remove banners from the Smith Center,” UNC’s basketball arena.
In the summer of 2013, a few months after Moeser’s comments, Carol Folt, a top official at Dartmouth College, took over as UNC’s chancellor. She brought with her Jim Dean, the onetime head of UNC’s highly regarded business school, who became executive vice chancellor and provost. Willingham decided to warn the administration that in addition to the black studies debacle, it needed to address the problem of highly recruited football and basketball players arriving without the tools to do college class work.

By this time, she had extended her master’s research and amassed data on a selection of 183 academically “at-risk” UNC athletes from 2004 to 2012. Eighty-five percent were football and basketball players. In an e-mail in July, she told Dean that 60 percent of the athletes she had studied had from fourth- to eighth-grade reading levels. About 10 percent read below a third-grade level. Willingham added: “Of the 183 students, 45 (about 24 percent) had UNC GPAs under 2.0, thus putting them at risk of academic disqualification. Ninety-four of the 183 students, over half, had GPAs under 2.3. Keep in mind that the bogus system of eligibility—UNC’s paper class system—was assisting these players to stay on the court/field.” So far as she knew, the flagrant paper classes had ended with Nyang’oro’s departure, but she wasn’t in a position to know what went on in other departments at the sprawling university.

Coincidentally, and without Willingham’s knowledge, Bradley Bethel, a reading and writing specialist with the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, sent a similar e-mail to Chancellor Folt in July. “There have been many student-athletes who were specially admitted whose academic preparedness is so low they cannot succeed” at UNC, Bethel wrote.

Dean asked Willingham to provide raw test data supporting her analysis. She declined, explaining that she’d obtained the confidential information by promising the university’s Institutional Review Board not to share it with anyone. She told Dean he could obtain the data directly from the athletic department, which gathered it in the first place. He declined to do as she suggested. “If she had the proof,” Dean says, “why wouldn’t she share the proof?”

Willingham had good reason to be wary. After a performance review last spring (a process that preceded Folt’s and Dean’s assuming their posts), she was demoted from her position as assistant director of UNC’s Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling. She was moved to a basement office and consigned to the paperwork-intensive task of advising students on graduation requirements. Alleging that she was punished for speaking out, she has filed an internal grievance, which is pending.

In December the criminal indictment of Nyang’oro, whom the university has cast as a rogue, brought Chapel Hill to a boil. An Orange County (N.C.) grand jury accused the 59-year-old scholar of fraudulently accepting payment for a class he did not teach in the summer of 2011. Eighteen of the 19 students enrolled in AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina were members of the Tar Heel football team; the 19th was a former player.

Nyang’oro faces as many as 30 months in prison on the charge of obtaining property by false pretenses. His attorney, Bill Thomas, of Durham, N.C., told reporters that Nyang’oro is innocent and has no intention of taking the fall. “There’s been one side of this story that has been put forth in the press,” Thomas said, “but he’s going to have an opportunity to present his side.” Thomas declined to comment for this article, but his meaning was clear: Nyang’oro is threatening to identify others at UNC who knew about his paper courses.

In January, CNN broadcast a national investigation entitled “Some College Athletes Play Like Adults, Read Like 5th-Graders.” Among its findings, CNN featured Willingham and her 183-athlete study. In the glare of the media spotlight, she got carried away, saying at one point: “I mean, we may as well just go over to Glenwood Elementary up the street and just let all the fourth graders in here.” Stephen Colbert amplified the furor when he satirized athlete education in a segment on his Comedy Central show. After playing a clip of Willingham’s quip about admitting fourth graders, the comedian asked: “Why? How fast can they run the 40? Can they really take a hit?”

Many in Chapel Hill took offense. Tar Heel basketball coach Roy Williams suggested at a press conference that Willingham had impugned the moral character of his players. “Every one of the kids that we’ve recruited in 10 years you’d take home and let guard your grandchildren,” he said. Smith, the French history scholar, observes that “getting criticized by the basketball coach in Chapel Hill is a scary thing.” The wave of hostile e-mail Willingham has received included several death threats.

In this volatile atmosphere, Folt convened her faculty on Jan. 17 to hear what amounted to an indictment of Willingham led by Dean. The defendant was tried in absentia for defaming the university. Pointing to slides projected on a large screen, Dean, a scholar of organizational behavior, accused Willingham of making slanderous statements about the academic abilities of Carolina football and basketball players. Her assessments “are virtually meaningless and grossly unfair to our students and the university that admitted them,” he said. “Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this university.” The verdict, recorded on videotape, was swift: The assembled scholars erupted in applause.

“In 25 years of faculty meetings, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Smith said later. “It was a public conviction and an intellectual execution.”

At Dean’s order, Willingham turned over her data on the 183 athletes to him. He declared that the diagnostic test she used, the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA), assesses vocabulary and isn’t recommended for judging literacy levels. She further muddled her results, he added, by miscalculating grade-equivalent levels.

After Dean’s presentation elicited applause, Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor, got to his feet. He mused aloud about the university’s focusing on Willingham as a form of coverup. “President Nixon went down for denial,” he told his colleagues. In an interview later, he elaborated: “What I heard was stonewalling,” he said. “The university is trying to distract us by going after Mary Willingham when there are much bigger issues here about sports and academics, and they’re not unique to North Carolina.”

For reasons she didn’t explain, Folt softened UNC’s message when she addressed her board of trustees six days later. She admitted publicly for the first time “a failure in academic oversight for years.” Two days after that, Dean traveled to New York on a Saturday to clarify Folt’s point. “Horrible things happened that I’m ashamed of,” he said, although he noted this was all before he and Folt took over.

He outlined a range of nascent reforms: new leadership for and tighter supervision of the athlete-advising office, fewer “special talent” admits who fail to meet academic standards, a fresh “strategic plan” to keep UNC among the top Division I schools academically, and an administrative overhaul of the black studies department. On Feb. 21, Folt announced yet another investigation of the scandal, but this time UNC has hired Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. Department of Justice official, to undertake what is billed as an entirely independent probe.

Bethel, the reading specialist who warned Folt last July about unprepared athletes, told me via e-mail the latest reforms seem meaningful, adding: “I am confident UNC’s integrity will be restored.” And Lawrence “Bubba” Cunningham, the university’s current athletic director, said in a separate e-mail exchange: “The NCAA scholarships that students have been awarded for the past 50 years are the best scholarship program ever created with the possible exception of the GI Bill. While they’re not perfect, sports scholarships certainly provide great opportunities for an awful lot of students.”

The impulse to kill the messenger hasn’t receded, however. During his visit to New York, Dean said of Willingham: “She’s said our students can’t read, our athletes can’t read, and that’s a lie.”

Dean grossly distorted Willingham’s statements. What she’s said is that 18 out of the 183 special admit athletes whose records she assessed read at roughly a third-grade level. An additional 110 of the athletes, she said, read at between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. She never said that most, let alone all, of the 800 athletes at UNC are illiterate, and she said nothing at all about the other 18,000 undergraduates.

When challenged, Dean conceded he’d misspoken. He also admitted that he doesn’t really think Willingham is a liar and assumes she means well. But would he similarly qualify his assault on Willingham back in Chapel Hill?

Willingham stands behind her work and says Dean has mischaracterized it. The SATA diagnostic test on which she relied was administered by a UNC-hired Ph.D. psychologist, she says. It included a writing portion in addition to vocabulary questions. And her assessment wasn’t based solely on the SATA; she also looked at results from athletes’ SAT and ACT entrance exams. UNC has referred her unpublished research to outside experts for analysis. Such a review seems appropriate.

Willingham isn’t a professional statistician. She’s an HR exec-turned-reading teacher. That she loves helping students seems beyond dispute. When I walked with her on the Chapel Hill campus in February, undergraduates approached her unbidden to say hello. She knew them by name. She inquired whether they’d followed through on registering for a class or on finishing the work for another one.

“Let’s say my data are off a little bit,” she said. “I don’t think they are, but let’s say they are. Set aside the data. Forget about it. The paper classes were still fake, and they existed to keep athletes eligible.”

“I’ve sat with these kids,” Willingham continued, referring to heavily recruited athletes. “Some of them can barely read. We have to meet them where they’re at and teach them to read.” That’ll be tough to do, however, while they’re also attending college classes and playing Division I basketball or football.

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