The relationship between academics and athletics at the University of North Carolina has become increasingly controversial over the past few years, as several scandals have emerged accusing the university of taking shortcuts for the benefit of its student-athletes.
A new Bloomberg Businessweek report by Paul M. Barrett shows that UNC officials are now willing to admit past mistakes — including the 2011 revelation that football players and other athletes were enrolled in classes that didn’t actually exist.
“That painful history consists of the transformation of UNC’s former African and Afro-American Studies Department into a factory churning out fake grades from phony classes disproportionately attended by varsity athletes,” Barrett writes. “No one is disputing that anymore.”
Currently in dispute is whether some of UNC’s student-athletes couldn’t read and write past a grade school level. Those claims were brought to light over the past few years by UNC instructor Mary Willingham. Her research showing 60% of basketball and football players read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels has been in the spotlight following a breakthrough report by CNN — which included a controversial anecdote about a supposedly illiterate UNC basketball player.
UNC officials came out strongly against Willingham’s results, suspending her research on athlete literacy pending a university investigation. UNC released the following statement earlier this month:
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. Our students have earned their place at Carolina and we respect what they bring to the University both academically and athletically.
UNC provost James Dean maintained the university’s position in his conversation with Barrett, saying about Willingham, “She’s said that our students can’t read, our athletes can’t read, and that’s a lie. Mary Willingham has done our students a great disservice.”
While Dean scaled back his comments later in his interview with Barrett, saying that he actually doesn’t think Willingham is a liar, his initial reaction shows the institutional antagonism that the UNC whistleblower faces.
Although Willingham has had her research suspended and says she has recieved death threats, she firmly upholds her claims about student-athlete literacy in a new interview with Carolina Connection, the radio program of UNC’s journalism school.
“I’m telling the truth, I stand behind my data,” Willingham told the UNC student media group.
Willingham says she has had concerns about student-athlete literacy since 2004, but still participated in the “bogus system” for seven years. Now, the university instructor is trying to fix some of those wrongs, she says:
“I’m walking around with a bullseye on my back … Why am I doing it? Because I’m 52 years old and I was part of this problem for seven years. I participated in a bogus system of eligibility for seven years. I knew exactly what I was doing and I knew that it was wrong. I can still see the faces of all those young men who left here with either no degree or a degree that’s meaningless t0 them and I can’t finish my life out this way. I need to fix and undo what I did.”
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