UNC Fake-Classes Whistleblower Resigns After Meeting With Chancellor

Mary Willingham
Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek

The flames just rose again beneath the $16 billion-a-year college sports industry’s scandal du jour. Mary Willingham, the academic-fraud whistleblower at the University of North Carolina, announced her resignation from the prestigious Chapel Hill, N.C., campus.

Willingham confirmed her imminent departure after an hour-long meeting with Carol Folt, the university’s chancellor. UNC described the encounter as “productive,” but Willingham indicated it had been acrimonious.

A former tutor to top Tar Heel athletes, Willingham helped reveal that the university had for years steered football and basketball players into fake classes that never met. She said that she and other academic advisers did so as a way of keeping the athletes eligible to play. The former chairman of UNC’s black-studies department is under criminal indictment in connection with the scandal.

North Carolina has acknowledged—and apologized for—the corruption but insists that it was “academic” in nature, rather than “athletic.” That distinction has apparently held sway with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which so far has declined to investigate the goings on in Chapel Hill. An NCAA investigation could lead to questions about the legitimacy of the university’s national men’s basketball championships in 2005 and 2009.

On other fronts, the NCAA faces lawsuits filed on behalf of current and former undergraduate athletes who accuse the association of acting as an illegal cartel that exploits football and basketball players by failing to share the proceeds from lucrative television and video game contracts. The NCAA also is fighting a nascent unionization campaign by football players demanding better health coverage and more say in how the vast college sports business operates.

UNC, known for its strong academic tradition and powerhouse basketball program, has come to symbolize a central element of the college sports controversy. The NCAA justifies its refusal to compensate athletes by stressing that its competitors receive as compensation a four-year education, often subsidized by scholarships, and a degree that stands them in good stead when their sports careers end. But the UNC scandal illustrates that the promise of a valuable education may be an empty one if even highly regarded schools are willing to funnel athletes into make-believe classes and stamp their transcripts with inflated grades.

UNC has questioned Willingham’s credibility, even as it has conceded the core of her revelations. Top university officials have repeatedly tried to change the focus of the controversy from the corruption of courses and the padding of transcripts to Willingham’s separate allegations that a substantial percentage of football and basketball players she worked with over the years could not read at anything close to a college level. The university has disputed research Willingham did on a selected group of at-risk student athletes, saying that she misinterpreted key test data. She, in turn, has stood by her unpublished work and countered that UNC has willfully distorted her findings.

On Monday, after Willingham sat down with Folt, UNC’s top spokesman, Joel Curran, told the Raleigh News & Observer that the meeting had been “productive.” Willingham, he said, “had an opportunity to really share her points of view on anything that she wished, and the chancellor had her opportunity to share her points of view, but the chancellor did not characterize it as anything but a productive meeting.” Curran said that Folt had not fired Willingham or asked her to quit.

In an e-mail, Willingham confirmed that she planned to resign as an undergraduate counselor, effective at the end of the semester, and said that she had not been forced out. “It was time to end this hostility,” Willingham said. “This chancellor has totally sold out.”

For an excellent analysis of this sad and outrageous situation, please read a blog post by Willingham’s friend and backer Jay Smith, a tenured UNC history professor. “The clash between Willingham and the university has never really been about statistics,” Smith writes. “The clash is all about the current model of collegiate athletics and whether the university can tolerate in its midst an insider who is determined to expose the defects of the collegiate model. The vehemence of the assault on Willingham shows how desperately UNC administrators, and UNC sports fans, cling to the myth that all is basically well in the Emerald City. Willingham urges us to look behind the curtain.”

Based on my own examination of the facts—described in this Bloomberg Businessweek cover story and related online dispatches—I believe Smith is putting it politely. Too politely. There’s something very much un-well in Oz.

NOTE: Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg L.P., which owns Bloomberg Businessweek, is a trustee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and sits on its Foundation Board and the UNC Global Research Institute Board.

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