23 October 2014

The University of North Carolina "student-athlete" academic scandal - updated

This week the U.S. is in the throes of its annual "March Madness" collegiate basketball mania, so it seems to be an appropriate time to provide some links about the recent scandal at the University of North Carolina.

Mary Willingham, a Learning Specialist teaching remedial skills at UNC's Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, commented publicly on the abysmal educational skills of athletes enrolled at the school, most of whom had reading skills of grade-school children, some of them at a third-grade level and not having ever written a paragraph in their life.

The best video interview is this one from ESPN, for which I've been unable to find a embed code.  In it she reports her experience with literally illiterate college student-athletes who were unable to write.  They were enrolled in "paper classes" that didn't really exist (they just had to write a paper, not attend classes, and that help was given to them to write that paper).  The classes were typically in African-American Studies (AFAM).  She calls the situation a "scam," "a joke," that "everyone knew" and that the NCAA doesn't care about this.  The video is definitely worth a four-minute viewing.

Embedded at the top of this post is a screencap of a "final paper" she showed during the interview, one submitted by a student who received an A- for this work.

Here is a related video -

- which includes the essence but lacks the punch of the ESPN interview linked above.

For the past three years, Ms. Willingham has been anonymously providing information about this academic fraud to the News and Observer in Raleigh, resulting in articles like this.
Until August, the university had resisted going back further than 2007 to investigate other potential academic problems in the department, so it’s difficult to assess exactly what was happening before then.

Difficult, that is, except in the case of Julius Peppers, whose transcript sat unnoticed on UNC’s website until this summer. Peppers had D’s or F’s in 11 of 30 classes, the transcript showed, and was barely eligible for football and basketball only because of a string of better grades in courses he took in the AFAM Department.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/09/30/2379206/unc-players-needed-academic-help.html#storylink=cpy
Bloomberg Businessweek has an extended discussion.

It's worth emphasizing that this criticism does not apply to all colleges and certainly not to all student athletes.  The problem arises because of the rise of big money in collegiate sports.

Addendum:  I posted the above in March of 2014.  Reposted to add this excerpt from an HBO Sports presentation...

 ... in which she notes that some football and basketball players at the University of North Carolina had SAT verbal scores of 280-300.

And this week the StarTribune carried an Associated Press report on the outcome of the university's investigation of the scandal, noting that the problem extended beyond the athletes to include regular students:
A scandal involving bogus classes and inflated grades at the University of North Carolina was bigger than previously reported, encompassing about 1,500 athletes who got easy A's and B's over a span of nearly two decades, according to an investigation released Wednesday...

Many at the university hoped Wainstein's eight-month investigation would bring some closure. Instead, it found more academic fraud than previous investigations by the NCAA and the school...

The focus was courses that required only a research paper that was often scanned quickly by a secretary, who gave out high grades regardless of the quality of work. The report also outlined how counselors for athletes steered struggling students to the classes, with two counselors even suggesting grades. Several knew the courses were easy and didn't have an instructor...
The NCAA is pondering what to do with this information.


  1. Nothing all that new here, except that it has now been honed and "perfected" even down to the most PERFECT of scapegoats- African American academics teaching African American studies. Talk about Win-Win when it comes to hand washing! Who can we blame for African American students exiting college illiterate- look no further than... African American faculty! Case Closed. Hhhhmmm- they really should do something about those people.

    Does anyone really think that these schools are going to retain any African American faculty that actively object and protest to using their student athletes as pawns- or are they going to hire those who agree to go along to get along... especially in these days when you have adjunct professors dying homeless in the streets.

    This outrage starts well before college, and it's not exactly a secret that the major money players (ie- university heads, tournament organizers, etc) in this scandal are not African American. The guys in the suits stealing millions stay unscathed in their offices, and the Black faces doing street crimes for nickels and dimes get to do the perp walk and do jail time. It's the same basic song and dance, one side makes out big time, the other gets a fast ride to palookaville before they know what hit them.

    Wonder if the Tar Heels would consider hiring Dr. Angela Davis to head their African American Studies dept?

  2. Use this information to ponder what to do with the NCAA and college sports.

  3. This is just grade inflation, and it's not just a problem with athletes at UNC. U.S. Higher education has become a commodity. it's something you buy, and customers need to be happy. The average grade at Harvard is an A: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/12/3/grade-inflation-mode-a/ Grade inflation in general is most egregious at private schools, which are, remember, businesses. But there is immense pressure at all schools to improve retention and graduation rates (e.g. make school fun for students and above all else NOT flunk them). U.S. News & World Report uses retention & graduation as a main criterion for scoring schools. States sometimes even tie funding to this statistic. It's no secret. Academic administrations are well aware of the problem, and the pressures. But the customer (student) is king!


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