Sports Scandal: What Did UNC Leaders Know, and When Did They Know It?

“Although we in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes are capable of supporting many student athletes who are not as academically prepared as most UNC students, there have been many student-athletes who were specially admitted whose academic preparedness is so low they cannot succeed here.”

More propaganda from Mary Willingham, the “rogue” reading specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose supposedly bogus research suggesting that UNC athletes are essentially illiterate is merely a prop for her book- writing deal (if one listens to rabid Tar Heel defenders)?

Or is it a comment out of the distant past, before the old athletics administration was swept out of office?

No, the above statement is from an email sent to new chancellor Carol Folt by Bradley Beal, another reading specialist whose job it is to get UNC athletes reading and writing up to the collegiate level. And he was only hired as recently as 2011.

Also coming out of the well-polished UNC woodwork is a former dean and emeritus professor of Slavic languages, Madeline Levine. In an article in the Raleigh News & Observer, she said that she “was made aware of instances in which the university has admitted athletes with substantial academic challenges, including one she suspected was ‘functionally illiterate’ during her tenure.”

Even before Bethel and Levine emerged, UNC was backpedalling from its vicious attacks on Willingham and her research. The school’s leaders realized that they had walked out on a limb by resting their entire case—and possibly their careers—on whether Willingham’s research would stand up to academic scrutiny.

For some reason, possibly a peek at that research revealing sound data and conclusions, Folt quickly shifted into defense mode. She made a big splash at a UNC Trustees meeting announcing that the school was responsible and accountable for hundreds of courses in the African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department that were essentially guarantees of “no-show, no-work, good grades.” These courses were frequently taken by athletes in the revenue-producing sports of football and men’s basketball, particularly by those with eligibility questions. Previously, the school had blamed the former department chair and his assistant, who are gone from the university; Folt said it was also the school’s “failure in academic oversight.”

Yet, upon closer inspection, Folt’s mea culpa appears to be nothing more than another stage in the damage control campaign the school has been waging for the last three-and-a-half years. She confined her talk to well-worn paths; she did not, for instance, address the comments made a couple of weeks ago by a former football player, who reported that he was directed toward the no-show AFAM classes by academic advisors working with the athletic department. Nor did she directly deal with Willingham’s claims.

And while she said the school deserved “scrutiny” of its conduct, she did not admit that there was—and is—continued corruption inherent in keeping low-functioning athletes eligible. 

In fact, it would seem her statements were really intended to prevent her own head from rolling when Mary Willingham’s tales of illiterate student-athletes were inevitably proven true. And that truth is even more likely to be confirmed now that Levine and Beal have come forward.

A couple of other notes: Here is a story on Mary Willingham’s (not-so) insidious intentions. It seems she has deliberately crafted her career in order to help those who most need help in overcoming learning difficulties.  (Also, check out this  interview with Willingham and a supporter on the UNC faculty, Jay Smith.)

And, just to make sure that my comments are not seen as a criticism of UNC-Chapel Hill alone, but of the entire world of big-time college sports and its corrupting influence on the academy, here’s a little tidbit that came to light with a report to the UNC System’s Board of Governors on university athletics (on page 8): At North Carolina State University, the freshman basketball recruits average 780 (combined math and reading) on their SATs. (Chapel Hill’s were not reported because they had fewer than three freshman scholarship players.)

Given such abysmal numbers (at a school where the average SATs are roughly 1200), chances are that at least one player on the State team is functioning at the level where you need a cash register to be able to make change for a dollar—and possibly need pictures on that cash register to tell you what buttons to press instead of words. 

The problem is throughout all college sports; NCAA’s Division I in the revenue sports is one big sewer.


Jay Schalin is Director of State Policy at The John William Pope Center

Posted by: Jay Schalin

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