The New York Times rang in 2014 with a front page story headlined, “A’s for Athletes, but Charges of Fraud at North Carolina.”
Businessweek followed on Jan. 6 with “Scandal Bowl: Why Tar Heel Fraud Might Be Just the Start.”
Two days later, when CNN reported the results of an investigation of academic problems among public university athletes, it used as its lead example the research of Mary Willingham, a UNC instructor and adviser who has declared that in her time as an adviser to athletes at the University, she met many who could not read or write at a level acceptable for college work.
More than three years after news of NCAA violations in the UNC football program and fraud involving athletes in an academic program broke, there is nothing to indicate the public heat on the University is cooling.
CNN said its probe “found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level.” CNN said it had concluded that “most schools have between 7% and 18% of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level.” The NCAA quickly disputed CNN’s report, saying that “the hard facts and cold truth simply do not bear out the scenario portrayed in its reporting.”
But what made the biggest headlines closer to home was Willingham’s statement to CNN that on one occasion between 2003 and 2010 (her tenure in athletics advising), she encountered a Carolina men’s basketball player who could not read or write.
Coach Roy Williams ’72 said he did not believe that assertion. At a postgame news conference, he said: “I don’t believe that’s true. It’s totally unfair. I’m really proud of the kids we’ve brought in here. I’m really proud of what our student-athletes have done. That’s not fair. I’ve been here 10 recruiting classes, I guess. 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 next day, Willingham said she stood by her statement, and she told the newspaper she would meet with Williams and share the details about the player she said couldn’t read or write. A day later, Williams told the paper that it was “not his place” to meet with Willingham and that he would defer to UNC administrators as to how he should handle the matter.
The University reacted to the CNN report and Willingham’s claim with a statement that read: “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.”
Willingham, who left athletics advising in 2010, now works in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling as a graduation adviser and teaches a class in UNC’s School of Education. She told The News & Observer that she currently has a grievance against UNC “for changes to her job that she thinks were an effort to make her quit.”
While pursuing the master’s degree she got from UNC-Greensboro in 2009, Willingham conducted research that she said showed that 60 percent of 183 athletes at Carolina between 2004 and 2012 who were considered upon admission to Carolina to be at risk for academic failure read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels and that 8 percent to 10 percent read below a third-grade level.
University administrators have disputed those claims and said they don’t know where Willingham got her information. Willingham said UNC has the data. “It belongs to them, and they paid a lot of money for it,” she told CNN.
CNN further reported that when it had asked UNC officials last year to comment on Willingham’s research, “officials initially denied knowing about it and said: ‘Such analysis is not part of her job duties at the university.’
“Then, after being shown the e-mails, a spokesperson admitted that Willingham did share her findings and did have permission from the university to do the research in the first place.”
Willingham also has admitted that each year she signed NCAA paperwork certifying that she hadn’t seen or been a part of academic cheating. Last April, she told ESPN: “I’ve got to tell you that most of the time, I scribbled my initials on it. So yeah, I lied. I saw it — I saw cheating. I saw it, I knew about it, I was an accomplice to it, I witnessed it. And I was afraid, and silent, for so long.”
She said that just after the CNN report came out, she had received four death threats via email.
In addition to whatever will come of Willingham’s whistle-blowing and the spreading national media coverage of the events at UNC, the Orange County district attorney said there could be another indictment related to academic fraud found in the department of African and Afro-American studies.
The department’s longtime chair, Julius Nyang’oro, was indicted by a grand jury late last year on a felony charge of obtaining property by false pretenses — specifically, taking $12,000 in pay despite not showing up to teach a class.
Nyang’oro, who was forced to resign as chair and subsequently retired, had been found in multiple investigations to be at the source of a long-term practice of giving good grades in courses that were heavily populated by varsity athletes and that involved little academic work.
District Attorney James Woodall ’82 (AB, ’85 JD) said there could be a second indictment in the case, possibly in January. He said the person being investigated is not currently a University employee but would not identify the person.
Nyang’oro’s trial is scheduled for April.
A UNC spokesperson told CNN the school has initiated 120 reforms to try to ensure that academic fraud such as that in the AFAM department cannot be repeated. Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham told CNN that the University admits only athletes that it believes can succeed academically.
Willingham has said she was familiar with the bogus classes offered in AFAM, which she said dated at least to her coming to UNC in 2003. She said she had complained to the University about the academic irregularities two years before the scandal became public.