Saturday, February 22, 2014

UNC Academic Scandal: new investigation, but same old facts

     UNC has announced that they will be starting a new investigation into the school's long-standing academic scandal.  Led by Kenneth Wainstein, a partner with the firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, this new endeavor will try and avoid the mistakes made by numerous investigations and reviews that came before.

     The information and facts needed to solve this athletic/academic puzzle, however, have been held within the university's records all along.  If the prior reviews (which were also sanctioned and appointed by the school) conveniently avoided getting to the root of the problem, then it remains questionable whether Wainstain will be any more successful in uncovering (and reporting) the truth.

     Bits of information on those prior reviews (and their ineffectiveness) have been presented to the public in small doses over the past few years.  In the coming months they will be summarized in a concise and clear manner, yet also with great detail and analysis of their shortcomings.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Outside the Lines," academic counselors, data manipulation: January News Part Three

           On January 14, 2014, a segment ran on the ESPN show “Outside the Lines” discussing the latest scandal revelations at the University of North Carolina.  Mary Willingham was featured, as well as other specialists in the fields of college athletics and the media.  Bob Ley, the no-nonsense reporter who is not afraid to tackle tough issues, was the show’s moderator. 

            He gave a quick recap at the show’s start:  “The current issue is (a) study of reading levels which paints an abysmal picture of incoming athletes.  Mary Willingham did that study as a graduate student, working as a learning specialist with UNC athletes.”  Ley then went on to recount some of the earlier words of Willingham:  “(In) This July email to several professors, she says, ‘I’ve reviewed academic data for 183 athletes admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012.  About 160 athletes are admitted each year.  Although several teams are represented in this group, the great majority of the students, 85 percent, come from the revenue sports, men’s football and basketball.  These numbers speak to the presence at UNC of a significant population of athletes unprepared for the rigors of university classrooms.  60 percent of these students have reading scores below the 50 percent range… Unless we offer intensive reading instruction and a course of curriculum for our profit sport athletes, academic fraud will continue.”

            Willingham plainly said what she felt (and what numerous other data sets dating back to the mid-1990's had strongly suggested) had been occurring for years at UNC:  academic fraud.

            ESPN’s Andy Katz had spoken with head basketball coach Roy Williams the day before the airing of the show.  When asked why Williams did not plan on meeting with Willingham to discuss the claims that one of his former players was illiterate, Williams had this to say in terms of his rationale:  “Because I don’t think that’s my job…  I should be the one to try to determine whether we should play zone or man to man.  I should not be the one to determine whether or not information in an academic area is appropriate or inappropriate.”

            Williams would go on to selectively choose certain statistics from the past in order to paint a rosier situation than actually existed at the university.  “We’ve only had one senior that didn’t graduate,” he said.  “They don’t give those degrees away.  I mean, I went to school here.  They don’t give those degrees away.”  Not mentioned at all was the documented data of years of fraudulent courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, a major that multiple past UNC basketball players had chosen.  Only one senior had not graduated, according to Williams.  But how many of those other graduating seniors had taken fraudulent and/or nonexistent classes to bolster their GPA’s and eligibility?  Much more on that topic will be discussed in the coming months.

            Later in the “Outside the Lines” show Bob Ley spoke directly with Mary Willingham.  At one pointed Ley asked her if she felt her employment was endangered by speaking out, to which Willingham replied:  “Well, I think my employment has been in danger since I began speaking out last year.  … I was demoted, my title was stripped, and lots has happened.”
            Ley then directly brought up the topic of the AFAM department and whether there had been any willing participation of academic fraud on the school’s part:  “I want to ask you, in your time working closely with the athletes during those seven years, did you see any evidence of these players being involved in these so-called “no-show” classes out of the Afro-American and African Studies department?  …  Did you see people in the athletics area moving kids and guys and women towards those programs, directing them there?”
            Willingham’s response:  “Yes, we directed them to paper classes.  I’ve said that before.  We as academic advisers directed athletes to these paper classes, and we knew they existed.  I believe that the administration knew they existed.”

            One of the guests on the show that day was David Ridpath, the president-elect of the Drake Group, which advocates reforms in athletics.  Ley said to Ridpath:  “What you just heard and what you know about this Carolina situation, which has been around for a number of years.  What’s your take on where we stand on it right now?”
            Ridpath’s response did not mince words:  “I think the issue that we have from an academic perspective is that we want academic integrity and the chance for everyone to have a shot at a real education, not a manufactured education just to maintain eligibility.  That’s the core issue.”
            Next, Ridpath would touch on a troubling matter than had arisen over the prior few years, and which will be given more attention in the months to come: the NCAA.  Ridpath said:  “Beyond that, we have a serious problem with the NCAA looking away when they have punished others for much less academic fraud, and much less of a direct involvement, or indirect involvement, if you will, from the athletic department.  … It’s shameful that Mark Emmert, (and) the new director of enforcement John Duncan, that they have not taken action to investigate the academic fraud at North Carolina and have accepted what I would argue with Mary on the whitewashed reports of North Carolina as gospel, and basically saying no NCAA violations have been committed.  I was part of academic fraud cases where it was determined by the NCAA there was academic fraud for much, much less.”
            The “whitewashed reports” to which Ridpath referred covered several university-sanctioned (and possibly controlled) reviews over the past few years – reviews that will be given much more attention and scrutiny in the future.

            The following day, January 15, 2014, an article appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer that gave further credence to some of the information that Willingham had shared with Bob Ley.  In an article penned by investigative reporter Dan Kane, former UNC football player Michael McAdoo concurred that players were placed into certain classes by the school’s academic advisers.  McAdoo had earlier been kicked off of the football team in 2010 due to issues with one of those fraudulent courses, AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina.
            “They pretty much put me in that class,” McAdoo said of the counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes.  He said he was put in his first no-show class the spring semester of his freshman year, according to the article.  He said counselors told him, “it’s pretty much a class that you take just to get your GPA up.”  McAdoo said he and other athletes were happy to have the classes.  There was no class time, and the papers could be completed at semester’s end.  “I didn’t think twice about it,” he said.  “I was young and they was like, ‘You could get a quick three (credit) hours.’ “  He said he never received anything less than an A-minus in the classes until one of his papers was found to have received impermissible assistance from a university tutor.  Like many other issues, that too will be discussed in further detail in the future.
            In closing, McAdoo had this to say:  “I felt like I was done wrong.  The university didn’t stand up; they didn’t have my back.  They said academics is the first thing they were going to push – ‘You are going to do academics and then play sports.’  But come to find out it just felt like it was all a scam.”

            A day later on January 16, 2014, CNN gave a brief update saying that UNC would investigate Willingham’s claims over athletes’ reading abilities.  Some of the information coming from the school was disturbing, however – not only in their continued treatment of Willingham, but also in the selective nature of how they chose to present data. 
            UNC officials had talked with Willingham several days earlier in what they had described as a “cordial” meeting.  Willingham, however, described it as being “condescending”.  The school had continued to dispute her findings, and her university approval to do the research had also been pulled by UNC.
            Other quotes in the CNN article showed that when trying to dispute some of the points Willingham had made, the school chose a very narrow window of data.  University officials “pointed out that in 2013, no student-athletes were admitted with scores below the threshold, and in 2012, only two student-athletes in the revenue sports were admitted with scores that low.”  The problem with that weak informational offering was that Willingham’s research had covered the years 2004-2012.  So not only was the university referencing one year (2013) that had not even been a part of the original research, but they were also ignoring eight other years that Willingham had covered.

            The practice of cherry-picking data and not presenting the entire scope of a story was nothing new to the school, its administrative leaders, and presumably a host of Public Relations firms that had been on contract over the past several years.  Once again, that is yet another topic which will receive scrutiny in the future.  A major announcement on that front is now no more than two months away.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The whistleblower, death threats, and patterns of denial: January News Part Two

On January 8, 2014, CNN published a piece alluding to poor reading levels among some college athletes – even to the point of illiteracy.  UNC was heavily featured in the report, in large part due to data provided by a learning specialist who had formerly worked with athletes at the university.
            The analysis was titled “Some college athletes play like adults, read like 5th-graders,” and was fronted by Sara Ganim, the reporter who had spearheaded the initial investigative stories into the Jerry Sandusky (Penn State) case.  The learning specialist in question was Mary Willingham, who had worked closely with UNC football and basketball players for multiple years during the previous decade.  Research data gathered and extrapolated by Willingham revealed the following:  Out of 183 UNC athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012, 60% read between fourth-and-eighth grade levels, and between 8-10% read below a third-grade level.  One basketball player, according to Willingham, could neither read nor write.

            Based on a January 10, 2014 article in the Raleigh News and Observer, UNC (and specifically head basketball coach Roy Williams) “strongly disputed” the data that had been reported by Willingham to CNN. 
            The university could have acted like a true institution of higher learning and publicly supported the professional findings of one of its own researchers, in the process showing the desire to look deeper into the matter to determine the depth of the troubling revelations.  Instead, UNC almost immediately released a statement saying that Willingham’s claims were untrue:  “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.”
            In specific response to the claims that one of his former players was illiterate, Williams said:  “I don’t believe that’s true.  It’s totally unfair. … I’ve been here 10 recruiting classes, I guess.  We haven’t brought anybody in like that.”
            In a follow-up piece in the same newspaper, however, Willingham offered to show Roy Williams proof that one of his players couldn’t read or write.  “I stand by what I said, and if he wants to meet with me and go through his players, I’d be happy to share that,” she said.  “I went to a lot of basketball games in the Dean Dome, but Roy never came and sat with me while I tutored his guys.”
            A further response by Roy Williams was indicative of what had seemingly become a sports-first mentality at the school.  He indicated that it was not his place to speak to Willingham about academic matters, and that he would instead take his cue on the issue from university leaders.

            There were other fallouts from the initial CNN report, however.  The main one was reported death threats that Willingham had received due to her “whistleblower” status.  According to a follow-up report by CNN and Ganim, Willingham indicated that the threats were not necessarily unexpected.  What was shocking, however, was the fact that the university where she worked had essentially brushed aside her research and results.
            The university’s obstinacy garnered local media attention; the death threats made their way to the national news.  Another black eye on the school was the uncovering of erroneous claims on their part – an occurrence that had happened quite often over the previous three-plus years.  The University-released statement said in part: “University officials can’t comment on the other statistical claims mentioned in the story because they have not seen that data.  University officials have asked for that data, but those requests have not been met.”
            Willingham, however, begged to differ – with proof to back up her claims.  “(The data is) already available to them,” she said.  “It’s in their system… They have all the data and more.  It belongs to them, and they paid a lot of money for it.”  Furthermore, CNN showed the university copies of email correspondence between Willingham and school officials that clearly displayed the learning specialist sharing her findings with those in charge.  After being shown the emails, the school amended some of its previous statements – though without any further explanation as to the overall negative treatment of Willingham and her revelations. 

            The scenario:  Data emerges that paints the school in a negative light.  Informed and well-trained individuals give their professional opinions on the matter.  The school attacks and/or downplays data and information (and the messenger), instead of confronting the issues head-on and trying to get to the heart and origin of the matter.  While this may seem like a focused synopsis of a single event in early January of 2014, it is actually a familiar pattern that has taken place over and over again over the previous four years at the school – and maybe much longer.  All of those previous events and patterns will be detailed in the future.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

NYT and BusinessWeek: January News Part One

           An article appeared on the website of the New York Times late on New Year’s Eve, and would then show up in print on the first day of 2014.  Titled “A’s for Athletes, but Charges of Fraud at North Carolina,” it recounted parts of an athletic/academic scandal that had encased the university’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM).  In part, over 200 courses had been found to be “irregularly” taught, with a minimum of 560 unauthorized grade changes.  The majority of the students who had taken those courses in question, spanning back to at least the mid 1990’s, were from the major-sports programs of men’s basketball and football.  The article was but a brief overview, and only a fraction of the overall story.

A different article appeared via BusinessWeek on January 2, 2014, by Paul M. Barrett.  Titled “The Scandal Bowl: Tar Heels Football, Academic Fraud, and Implicit Racism,” it too covered some of the past fraudulent occurrences at the school.  Barrett suggested that the overall impact of the scandals ought to be “far broader than that of the Penn State” issue from several years earlier, because “the deceit in Chapel Hill pointed to more systemic weaknesses than the failure in University Park to stop one monster coach who preyed on little boys.  And the Tar Heels fiasco adds race to the toxic mixture of athletics and rank hypocrisy.”

            One question has been the NCAA’s involvement (or lack thereof) with regards to some of the past issues at the school.  Another column by Barrett appeared on January 6, 2014.  It noted in part that while the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) had every reason and right to be appalled by the scandal, it had instead remained inexplicably mute. 

There have been more major national-news stories (other than those noted above) that have appeared since the beginning of January, and some of them will be given coverage in the coming weeks.  In a much broader spectrum, however, there is much more to this story still to be revealed.  Other information on the NCAA and its involvement in UNC’s issues will be forthcoming, as well as details on deeper issues that have encompassed the school and its leadership in the past.  

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The UNC academic and athletic scandals

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found itself at the center of multiple scandals over the past four years.  These have spanned athletics, academics, and administrative oversight.  Some of the issues have been documented, but others have remained largely out of the public eye.

A comprehensive view of the past issues has yet to be presented.  However, a major announcement regarding that topic will take place on this blog no later than mid-April.  Up until that point, commentary will be given based on some of the national stories from 2014 that have finally started to give the scandal more widespread attention.

What has gone wrong at UNC, why did it happen, and who has ultimately been affected?  What could the possible punitive result of those transgressions be?  As mid-April arrives and then the following months unfold, those questions will become a key topic in the realm of both athletics and higher education.