Mary Willingham; AFAM independent studies;
The Faculty Committee on Athletics
The previous chapter ended with UNC history professor Jay Smith once again speaking out against some of the reported actions of the university, and the apparent lack of concern school officials displayed towards the indiscretions that continued to damage its reputation. As had been the case for almost the entire multi-year scandal, Smith was virtually the only UNC staff member who had been vocal about his displeasure regarding the events that had transpired. Considering the university had an academic staff numbering well over 3,000, and that a large part of the school’s mantra was that it did things “the Carolina way,” the fact that he stood alone was rather astounding. Why had so many others remained quiet? Was it because they possibly feared for their jobs should they speak out against the university and its athletics program? Did they perhaps not care about the school’s (and their own) academic reputation? Or did some of them actually value the national title banners that hung from the rafters of the Dean Smith Center as much as the casual, everyday fans of the school did? As 2012 drew near an end, though, a separate voice of displeasure finally stepped forward to join Smith and admonish the past academic indiscretions.
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Mary Willingham was a reading specialist at UNC. She graduated from Loyola University in 1994 with a BS in Psychology, and then completed the LD Certification Program at UNC in 2003. She began working at the school in October of that same year as a tutor in the Academic Center for Student Athletes. In January of 2010 she transferred to the school’s College of Arts & Sciences and became an Assistant Director for the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling. According to the university’s website, the Center was “dedicated to promoting academic excellence to assist students in achieving their academic goals while enrolled at Carolina.”
Willingham came forward with an exclusive media interview by way of a November 17, 2012, article in the Raleigh News and Observer. Being the first person from inside the academic support program to go public with details about its operation, Willingham told the newspaper that many past UNC athletes had stayed eligible to play sports because the academic support system had provided improper help and tolerated plagiarism. Even worse, when she raised questions or made objections to the cheating she saw, she said that no one at the university took her concerns seriously – much like teacher J. Nikol Beckham and the Erik Highsmith case from the previous chapter.
In the article that was a front-page feature, Willingham said she lodged complaints at least two years before UNC’s academic problems erupted into a full blown scandal. She would eventually focus some of her thoughts on the matter into a thesis for her master’s degree, which was based on the corrupting influence of big-money sports on university academics. Willingham kept her complaints in-house for a while, but a recent event had been the last straw for her. After attending the funeral of former UNC System President Bill Friday, a huge supporter of Carolina yet also a prominent critic of revenue-driven college sports, Willingham saw that no one within the university was willing to admit that they had been aware of an athletic/academic problem. It was then that she decided to go public via a series of interviews with the News and Observer.
Willingham clearly stated that there were numerous people in the academic support program who knew that what was going on was wrong, but they looked the other way, helping to protect one of the nation’s most successful (and previously respected) athletic programs. She said that no-show classes had been offered by the chairman of the AFAM department at least as far back as 2003, when she had begun working for the support program. Despite being billed as lecture classes, they were commonly known within the program as “paper classes.” However, those classes never met. Willingham learned of the irregular courses when she had been asked to work with an athlete on a paper. She said it was a “cut-and-paste” job, but when she raised questions about it, staff members told her not to worry. The student later received a grade of B or better. Ever since the uncovering of Julius Peppers’ transcript there had been strong suspicions that the problems within the AFAM department had spanned further back than 2007. Through Willingham, confirmation of that hypothesis from someone with direct university knowledge was finally provided.
Willingham also stated that members of the men’s basketball team took no-show classes until the fall semester of 2009, at which time the team had been assigned a new academic counselor. It was discussed in a previous chapter that Wayne Walden, the long-time academic advisor for basketball coach Roy Williams at both Kansas and UNC, had left the program in mid-2009. Willingham said the new counselor was “appalled” to learn of the fraudulent classes, and wanted no part of them. Willingham declined to name the new counselor, but university records showed that Jennifer Townsend was hired as an associate director in August 2009 and took over the role that Walden had vacated for the men’s basketball program. According to the newspaper article, the new counselor (Townsend) told Willingham that she would not enroll the players in the no-show classes, stating, “I didn’t come here… to do this. Everything has to be on the up and up.”
Townsend’s past work history had indirect connections with prior NCAA violations, so it was likely that she knew fraudulent classes and actions when she saw them. Her profile on UNC’s website showed she was formerly the academic counselor for men’s and women’s basketball at the University of Minnesota. She worked there after the school went through one of the most notable scandals in college basketball history, the N&O said. In 1999, the St. Paul Pioneer Press uncovered a cheating scandal involving a former university office manager who had written papers, filled out take-home exams and done other course work for 20 basketball players over a five-year period. The NCAA responded with numerous sanctions for the school, and perhaps more importantly erased a 1997 Final Four appearance from the record books. In comparison, the events at Minnesota at the very least appeared to be on par with some of what had happened at UNC. At the worst, the events at Minnesota paled in scope with UNC’s infractions, as the events at Minnesota covered a shorter stretch of time and dealt with far less affected athletes. However, the NCAA had still not revisited UNC to reopen an investigation – one which could potentially cause the erasure of not only Final Four appearances from the record books, but also multiple National Championships won by the school’s basketball team. Jennifer Townsend, the former Minnesota employee and then-current academic advisor for Roy Williams’ program, did not return messages left by the newspaper.
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Willingham made other assertions in her interviews with the News and Observer. She stated that some of the athletes she had worked with told her they had never read a book or written a paragraph, but were placed in no-show classes where the only required assignment was a 20-page paper – and yet they came away with grades of B or better. Willingham did say that most of the athletes in the nonrevenue sports were capable of doing college-level work. However, the lowered academic standards for football players and men’s basketball players – known as “special admits” – brought in athletes who lacked the academic ability, while still being expected to devote multiple hours a week to their sports. She said that was a dynamic destined to produce cheating. The special admissions for football and basketball players went back at least as far as the early 1990’s, according to the article. An earlier chapter noted that UNC had refused to release data on the number of special admits its basketball program had allowed. “There are serious literacy deficits and they cannot do the course work here,” Willingham said. “And if you cannot do the course work here, how do you stay eligible? You stay eligible by some department, some professor, somebody who gives you a break. Here it happened with paper classes. There’s no question.”
Other information she told the N&O was that roughly five years ago, Bobbi Owen, the senior associate dean who had oversight of the Academic Support Program, tried to get control over the number of independent study classes offered by the AFAM department. At the time they had averaged nearly 200 such classes a year. Independent studies required no class time and often not much more than a term paper. Past data showed that they were immensely popular with basketball and football players. The transcript of Julius Peppers, for example, showed that he had taken four such courses, and former star basketball player Sean May had also mentioned taking courses where he didn’t actually have to be in attendance.
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According to the November News and Observer article, in October of 2012 Mary Willingham had started a blog called “Athletics vs. Academics, a Clash of Cultures.” Former Governor Jim Martin and a representative of the accounting firm Baker Tilley interviewed her a few days later. Martin declined to talk about what she said, but he was no longer standing by what he had stated prior to her interview: that no one in the program had seen a problem with the no-show classes. Instead, his new stance was that he couldn’t comment.
When questioned about Willingham’s assertions, Chancellor Holden Thorp declined to discuss them. He said, “I’m not going to talk to you about this stuff because we’ve got this thing going on with Governor Martin, and that’s where our focus is right now, and these are the kinds of matters we’re working on. That’s all I’ve got to say about it right now.” Calls and emails from the newspaper to other university officials, former and current Academic Support Program staff and others to address Willingham’s claims were either not returned, drew no comment, or no response.
As pointed out earlier, Steve Kirschner, an athletics department spokesman, had said in prior email messages that the last basketball player to major in African and Afro-American Studies graduated in 2009. He said interest had declined in the department’s majors after 2005, and chalked it up to “different players have different interests.” However, what he failed to mention was that 2009 was also the year that men’s basketball academic advisor Wayne Walden also left the program. And as Willingham asserted, that was the year that the new counselor (Jennifer Townsend) refused to take part in the AFAM no-show classes that had long littered the schedules of UNC’s basketball players. UNC officials continued to claim that coincidence was the root of many of their athletic/academic problems, but the data and details continued to strongly suggest otherwise.
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After her early negative experience with an athlete’s paper, Willingham told the News and Observer that she avoided papers from the African Studies department by spending most of her time working with athletes in the nonrevenue sports. The issue of plagiarism arose again, however, when she was asked to look at a history paper for a football player. She said it, too, did not look like the student had written it. Willingham believed the athlete’s tutor had done the work, and she told the program director about the issue. The program director was Robert Mercer, and the tutor was Jennifer Wiley. Mercer would eventually refer Willingham to another academic counselor, who denied a problem and took no action, Willingham said.
After that frustrating episode of non-action, Willingham told the newspaper that she began seeking jobs outside of the academic support program. It was in early 2010 that she began working for another learning center at UNC that served non-athletes. Two years later, the NCAA would find that Wiley had written parts of papers for three football players. One of those athletes, Willingham said, was the same player she had previously reported. Jennifer Wiley had long refused to comment on any news articles, and Robert Mercer – who had been moved out of the academic support program earlier in the year – could not be reached for comment, either.
Willingham said she met with UNC attorneys at their request in mid-2010. That was during the NCAA investigation, and the meeting was to discuss what had happened in 2008. Afterwards she said they thanked her for coming, but never talked to her again. Furthermore, Willingham said she never heard from the NCAA at all during the entire time the Association was on campus looking into the athletic/academic scandal. It was unknown whether the NCAA had even been made aware of Willingham and her claims. Since that knowledge would likely have been relayed to the NCAA via university officials, there was significant doubt of it conveyance.
The bombshell November 17, 2012, N&O article closed by saying that for the most part Willingham did not blame the athletes. She conceded that some were uncooperative and troublesome, but many wanted to succeed on the field and in the classroom. “It’s not right,” she said. “It’s the adults who are not doing what they are supposed to do.”
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An article appeared in USA Today a few days later on November 20, 2012. It covered some of the fallout from Willingham’s claims about the depth of UNC’s past knowledge regarding its own athletic/academic indiscretions. The article noted that all of the recent revelations had yet to spark a new probe from the NCAA, but that one state senator would like to see an actual criminal investigation, as well. Republican State Senator Thom Goolsby had recently written on his blog, Carolina Columns, that UNC’s continued academic integrity issues merited a tougher approach than had been taken up to that point. “The reputation of the state’s flagship university is at stake and someone must take this matter seriously,” Goolsby wrote. “Any prosecutor worth his salt would turn detectives loose on staff and administrators involved in the fraud and subsequent cover-up. If necessary, the General Assembly could consider legislation to make prosecuting this type of academic fraud easier.”
Goolsby, who had received his law degree from the very school he was admonishing, continued with his blunt comments. “The UNC academic fraud scandal is like a pesky staph infection that just won’t go away for university officials – nor should it. As reporters at the Raleigh News and Observer continue to dig, they uncover more and more dirty little secrets. The latest problems swirl around a pus pocket called the Academic Support Program.”
He would end his diatribe by stating what many in the public had long wondered: why had several of the applicable governing bodies not stepped forward and demanded the truth? “The UNC Board of Governors should seriously consider asking for the resignations of current UNC Trustees who failed to safeguard academic integrity,” wrote Goolsby. “They have shown little willingness to get to the truth of this scandal and cure the infection. When UNC comes to the General Assembly for more funding, university officials should expect that legislators charged with representing the taxpayers will demand answers.”
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What initially seemed to be a minor article appeared in the News and Observer on December 1, 2012, regarding the resignation of UNC’s Associate Athletics Director for Compliance, Amy Herman. According to school officials, her move was not related to the ongoing problems within the athletics department. Instead, Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham and athletics department spokesman Steve Kirschner both said Herman was resigning for personal reasons. Despite those claims, there were past connections between Herman and the ongoing issues plaguing the athletics department.
The N&O article said that Cunningham had reorganized the compliance department in August of 2012. It was then that he had hired Vince Ille to lead it. Ille was covered in an earlier chapter, and his connections with current NCAA officials were detailed at that time. Since that August reorganization Herman had reported to Ille.
Herman’s tenure coincided with the initial NCAA investigation that had found impermissible benefits involving agents and academic fraud within the UNC football program. In a September 2011 deposition, Herman said that she had been inexplicably advised by school officials to avoid creating documents that would have been subject to North Carolina’s open records law, meaning that they could later be legally requested by the media.
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Following Mary Willingham’s mid-November assertions that academic staffers at the school had known all along about the fraudulent courses, more information would eventually surface to back up those claims. A December 8, 2012, article in the News and Observer reported that various documents and interviews suggested some faculty and athletic officials were aware of higher-than-expected Independent Study enrollments by athletes in the African Studies department. The dates of the knowledge were as early as mid-2006, but the voiced concerns apparently never reached top academic officials at the school.
The article stated that from 2001 through 2006, independent study courses offered by the Department of African and Afro-American Studies showed up with regularity on the schedules of men’s basketball players. In one year alone, in fact, basketball players accounted for 15 enrollments. That particular year was when the team won the 2005 NCAA Championship. Two years later, athletes from the basketball program all but disappeared from those independent study classes – classes which did not meet and typically only required a paper for credit.
A university athletics department spokesman attributed the decline in enrollments to a waning interest in African Studies among basketball players, wrote the N&O. Evidence had recently emerged that suggested there may have been other reasons, however. Those documents of evidence showed that officials within the department and within the Academic Support Program for athletes started having concerns about independent studies in 2006, which coincided with a lengthy story in the New York Times about an independent study scandal involving athletes at Auburn University.
The News and Observer article indicated that Robert Mercer, the former director of the Academic Support Program, and John Blanchard, a senior associate athletics director who oversaw academics, said they saw higher-than-expected independent study enrollments from athletes in the African Studies department. UNC records showed more than 1,400 enrollments of athletes and regular students in that department from fall 2001 to summer 2006, with some professors listed as teaching dozens of students at a time. Blanchard and Mercer reported the enrollments to Dick Baddour, the athletics director at the time. They said they and Baddour then took the information to the Faculty Committee on Athletics, but the committee told them there was nothing to be concerned about. That appeared to be where the momentum stopped for a deeper look into the enrollments and the African Studies department, the article said. It is important to note that there would later be significant concerns raised regarding the accuracy of those recollections. Namely whether those athletic officials truly raised “red flags” to the Faculty Committee on Athletics.
Members of that Faculty Committee on Athletics, which had oversight of athletic matters on campus, told reporter Dan Kane that they did not recall such a warning. Committee minutes from 2006 reflected some discussion about independent studies and included a reference to the New York Times report, which was published on July 14, 2006. In that Auburn University case, many athletes had used the independent studies courses to boost their grade point average.
Regarding that 2006 meeting of UNC’s Faculty Committee on Athletics from November, “The committee has conducted a review of student athletes’ registrations in independent study courses and has an interest in receiving current information in this regard,” the minutes said. Two months later, the committee inexplicably reported: “No sense exists of a current problem.” Robert Mercer was then tasked with tracking independent studies, the discussion apparently never went beyond the faculty athletics committee, and the African Studies department was not looked at any further.
The Faculty Committee on Athletics appeared to be comprised of eleven members in 2006, and several athletics department personnel also attended many of its meetings. There were several interesting ties between some of the committee members and UNC’s basketball program. Barbara Wildemuth was a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Information and Library Science. She was also the academic advisor and a former teacher of Byron Sanders. Sanders was a member of the 2005 National Championship team. Committee member Rachel Willis was an American Studies professor, and on a university webpage she was pictured posing with star basketball player Shammond Williams in 2003. English professor George Lensing was featured in an article from the university’s General Alumni Association website. It said, “Former UNC men’s basketball coach Dean Smith asked Lensing to talk with his players each year during a break in practice.” Whether those various past connections contributed to the quick absolving of any problems within the basketball program is unknown.
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The December 8, 2012, article in the News and Observer went on to say that the university did eventually launch a formal probe into the AFAM department in August of 2011 – but that was five years after the Faculty Committee on Athletics was first notified of concerns. Furthermore, the 2011 probe was only initiated after the News and Observer had obtained a transcript for football player Marvin Austin, which showed that he received a B-plus in an upper-level African Studies class before beginning his first full semester as a freshman at UNC.
The new information about the events of 2006 raised more questions about how much concern some university officials and faculty had about academic standards being lowered to help athletes remain eligible to play sports, reporter Dan Kane wrote. It also raised serious questions about the willingness of university officials to report what they knew about the problems in the African Studies department, and potentially other curriculums, as well.
Considering that the May 2012 internal probe was conducted by academic officials within the College of Arts and Sciences, which was home to the African Studies department, it would have stood to reason that the 2006 independent studies issue would have been included. No mention was made that there had been prior concerns about the department, however. At the very least that oversight suggested a lack of record-keeping and/or communication; a worst-case scenario would be that there had been a deliberate withholding of information.
A report was released in late July of 2012 from a special faculty subcommittee. A reference was made in the report about Robert Mercer and John Blanchard meeting with the Faculty Athletics Committee all the way back in 2002 to discuss the teaching of independent study courses. The two athletic leaders were told that “faculty members have great latitude to teach courses as they see fit.” The report also stated that academic counselors who worked with athletes therefore concluded that it was “not their responsibility to question decisions made within academic units about specific courses.” Minutes from that meeting did not, however, show concern about the independent study courses. Also, for some reason they did not show Mercer in attendance, either. As mentioned before, the legitimacy of certain claims would be questioned in the future. Was “red flag” information truly passed on to the Faculty Committee on Athletes on various occasions?
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As mentioned earlier, the December 8, 2012, N&O article reported that the years of 2001 through 2006 had a high volume of independent studies enrollments in the AFAM department. Records show that there were 1,433 in five years, with huge numbers of the enrollments being for particular professors. In spring 2002, for example, one African Studies professor was listed as having 70 independent study students under his guidance. The documents say the instructor of record was “not necessarily (the) instructor of supervision.” In at least 20 other circumstances, either a professor or staffers in the department were assigned 20 or more independent study enrollments in a semester. Often those were for sections that had originally been listed during the registration period as having a maximum limit of one student.
During that time period, the newspaper said, football players accounted for 172 enrollments, or 12 percent. Basketball players accounted for 39 enrollments, or 3 percent. While those were a relatively small percentage of the overall number of students signed up for the classes, they were much higher than either team’s representation of the entire student body. The basketball breakdown can be taken even further. During the five years in question (2001-2006), the basketball team had less than 30 different scholarship players. Based on the fact that basketball players had accounted for 39 enrollments, then it is possible that every single player who was on scholarship from 2001 to 2006 took a fraudulent independent study course. Even if the 39 enrollments were limited to a smaller pocket of individuals, the odds that at least one player from each season took a course is mathematically high. Furthermore, an earlier chapter established that seven players from the team’s 2005 National Championship team was majoring in AFAM, and earlier in this very chapter data revealed that 15 independent study courses were taken by basketball players during that title year.
Julius Peppers played basketball for the last time in 2000, just before the search parameters of the above data. His transcript that was inadvertently made public, however, gave an idea of how the independent study courses may have benefitted star athletes at UNC. His transcript showed that he was allowed to enroll in four independent studies within the AFAM department – the first of which was in the summer after his freshman year in which he had received an F, two D’s, two D-pluses, two C’s and one B. On the verge of not having a high enough GPA to participate in sports in the fall, he got a B in his summer independent study course, a class that was supposed to have been available only to “advanced undergraduate and graduate students,” according to UNC registration records and the N&O. Peppers would go on to receive a B and a B-plus in two other independent studies, again allowing his GPA to rise about the bare minimum that was needed to continue playing sports at the school. His transcript showed that he was enrolled in the fourth class, but he would ultimately leave for the NFL without graduating.
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James Moeser, UNC’s chancellor from 2000 to 2008, told the N&O that the high enrollment numbers in the independent study courses were clearly an indicator of a problem and should have been brought to the attention of the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “That’s excessive, and it’s not normal,” he said. The dean during the time period in question, Madeline Levine, said no one came to her about the issue. She reiterated that the concerns of Mercer, Blanchard, and Baddour should have come her way. “I would have expected them to go to a particular senior associate dean, or to have gone to me, or to simply call the college and say, ‘We’ve got a problem,’” said Levine. “If it had gone to one of the senior associate deans, then I would expect that that dean, with something as irregular as that, would have let me know.”
The N&O had sought explanations for the independent study enrollment decreases since receiving the data more than a year earlier, the newspaper said. Chancellor Holden Thorp and other administrators declined to talk about it. Thorp was Madeline Levine’s successor as dean of the Arts & Sciences College, but said he was unaware of any problems with the independent studies until 2011. Attempts to reach the professors in the African Studies department who had the highest numbers of enrollments were unsuccessful. Former Governor Martin had been scheduled to present his findings at a UNC Board of Trustees meeting less than two weeks from the time of the N&O’s early December article. He said he was trying to pinpoint what the discussion was back in 2006 and determine if it was the cause of the enrollment drop. “I think you can expect that that’s something that we have to pursue,” Martin said, “even if it takes us past December 20.” A closer look must not have happened, however, as Martin’s findings would ultimately be released on the 20th as earlier planned.
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The essential (and unanswered) questions:
-- Why had virtually every member of UNC’s faculty and academic staff, which numbered over 3,000, chosen to remain silent regarding the ongoing athletic/academic scandal that had encompassed the school for more than two years?
-- Why had no one at the university taken Mary Willingham’s initial claims of plagiarism seriously?
-- Despite apparent attempts to change the academic culture within UNC’s basketball program and to do things on the “up and up,” why had Jennifer Townsend refused to comment for any of the News and Observer’s articles?
-- The NCAA never spoke to Mary Willingham during its 2010 investigation into the school. Did university officials even tell the NCAA about her past observations of cheating?
-- Why were so many associated with the UNC Board of Governors and the UNC Board of Trustees unwilling to publically demand answers to the roots of the ongoing scandals at UNC?
-- Why had Amy Herman been advised by school officials to avoid creating documents that would have been subject to the state’s open records law?
-- In 2006, did the Faculty Committee on Athletics take a true and thorough look into the high number of independent study enrollments? And if so, then how did they apparently miss the disproportionately large number of basketball players who were taking those questionable courses?
-- Did the connections between some members of the Faculty Committee on Athletics and the school’s basketball program have anything to do with the lack of attention that was drawn to the independent study courses?
-- The preceding two questions are both based on assumptions that the Faculty Committee on Athletics had truly been informed of concerns regarding athletes and independent studies. Was that the actual case?
-- Were players enrolled in the possibly fraudulent independent study courses solely for the purpose of raising their GPA’s – so that in turn they would remain eligible to compete in athletics?
-- Players from UNC’s 2005 National Championship basketball team took 15 independent study courses that year. How many of those 15 courses were potentially fraudulent, yet kept them eligible to compete athletically?
-- Despite the abundance of information from Mary Willingham and also the independent study data from 2001-2006, all of which pointed to direct cheating meant to benefit athletes and potentially their eligibility, why had the NCAA still refused to address the matter?