Confessions of a Whistleblower by Mary Willingham


A lot of time and energy has been invested over the past several months into the exposure of my real and imagined flaws. UNC contracted with a “three expert” panel that pored over statistics and concluded that my diagnostic testing and board scores (some of which they never even saw) did not mean what I said they meant about the literacy levels of some athletes. There was the great brouhaha over my 2008 research application to UNC’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), where it was shown that several wrong boxes got checked. There have been countless allegations about FERPA and HIPAA violations. Most recently, my fans at the Inside Carolina fan forum ran my 2009 Master’s thesis through some plagiarism-detection software. They discovered a fair number of instances where I neglected to cite my source material properly and, in at least one case, even used verbatim material from another source without citing it or using quotation marks. These were indeed sloppy mistakes which I own and very much regret. (Note to Dan Kane of the Raleigh News & Observer: Maybe, just maybe, you should think twice before quoting someone who is speaking through tears. But keep up the good work, Dan!) I wish I could have a mulligan on the Master’s thesis and undo the poor footnoting and the plagiarism or near-plagiarism. But I don’t. So instead I will simply do what I always used to tell my students to do after they had flunked a quiz or failed to prepare for an exam: learn from the mistake and don’t do it again.

In any case, it has become clear to me that the-dredging-up-of Willingham’s-flaws is likely to become a never-ending process. Certain bloggers and message boarders seem to have dedicated their entire waking lives to the enterprise. This comes as no surprise. Discrediting the whistleblower is standard operating procedure when large institutions have been embarrassed and have a whole lot to lose. I understand what’s coming. But to save everyone time, and to direct the public’s attention back to where it ought to be directed, I would like to get out in front of all the internet detectives and provide a preemptive listing of all my failings. There are bunches of them. And I’ll tell you what I think you should make of them at the end.

-I was never nominated for mother of the year. Some would even say I lack the maternal instinct. I tended to tell my three kids to suck it up and move on whenever they cried or got hurt. My first child broke her finger once. I said “oh, that’s not broken. Shake it off.” The finger still looks a little disfigured, and my child is a nurse now so I’ll never live it down. But that was not as bad as when I told my middle child, who needed micro fracture knee surgery, to pop some ibuprofen and get over it. Geez, I was never very attentive.

-Also from the “not very attentive” category: I was always, ALWAYS, forgetting to play tooth fairy. In addition to losing their teeth, my kids had to face crushing disappointment when they looked under their pillow the morning after. My husband would sometimes come to the rescue and crawl under the bed to ‘hide’ the bill when they were eating their eggo waffles.

-This lack of attentiveness can get me into real trouble. I’ve been attacked by a pit bull and bitten by a black widow spider. This was cause for some concern, but more for the dog and spider who are no longer alive. As a matter of fact when anyone tells me to give up, or ‘get out of the fray’ it just makes my desire to set the record straight that much stronger.

-In fourth grade, in Chicago, I saw my friend Deirdre steal razzles chewing gum from our local grocery store. And I did nothing about it. I didn’t say ‘Deirdre, what the heck are you doing?’ I certainly didn’t report her to a store employee. In fact, I even chewed a piece of that gum (cherry) when she gave it to me. That wasn’t right.

-Once at Raleigh-Durham airport, I climbed behind the carousel to get my luggage even though I had been told that the luggage area was closed for the night. I was nearly arrested for not following the rules.

-My first marriage ended in failure. That was sure messy. My names, by the way, have been Woodrow, Welsh and Willingham. I’ve been stuck in the alphabet ghetto for my entire life. This alone has given me more time to get into trouble. I’m always waiting for my name to be called.

-I have developed the bad habit of cussing, especially when I read certain blog posts. I blurt out very foul language, even though I was so prim when I worked in UNC athletics that I scolded people all the time for their salty language. Such a @#$%* hypocrite.

-I once drifted through a stop sign in Lake Hogan Farms, where my family used to live. I got a ticket for it—my first ever traffic violation.

-I hate going to the grocery store. My family complains that the light bulb is often the only thing in the fridge. Cooking is not my strong suit either; my kids tell how they know when the dinner is done when the smoke alarm goes off.

-I also hate, I mean really hate, taking advice. When someone earnestly tells me what to do, I generally do the opposite. I have made contrarianism an art form. That wasn’t very nice of me.

-Sometimes I get a little overconfident-like the time our family went white water rafting and the outfitter was short a few guides. I volunteered, much to the horror of my husband and kids. Our youngest fell out of the boat when I directed the raft right into a rock. I’ll never live that one down either, but I deserve it.

-For that book I co-wrote with Jay Smith, I did relatively little of the actual writing. My main responsibilities were telling stories and double-checking the footnotes. The footnotes! Get ready Inside Carolina! It should be ready to run through your software by next March! (Oh, and making jokes-constantly, uncontrollably-about serious matters such as this is another of my character flaws.)

-When I was in college, I got academic credit for “surfing” and “scuba diving.” I also once failed a political science class. The sisters at Mother McAuley and the Jesuits at Loyola would all have agreed: I wasn’t always the best of students. I really should have buckled down.

-Although I worked in the athletic department, I generally hate watching sports. Team sports especially. I do like to run, bike, swim and kayak. Growing up with two sports fanatic brothers, I had to endure hours and hours of sports on television. And they always-and I mean always-made the all-star baseball team. My nightly prayers included “Lord, do not let them make it to the all stars.” Football, however, is the worst sport of all. Seeing football players collide makes me nauseous. I sure loved talking to football players, but I don’t think I ever told them I thought their sport was dangerous and pointless. Again with the hypocrisy.

-I have always called things as I see them. This has often gotten me in trouble-like the time I reported the mold and overall neglected facilities at Chapel Hill High School at a School Board Meeting. Why don’t I keep my mouth shut? I think it’s connected to the contrarianism.

Well…that’s quite a list of failings. Would you want someone like this as your next-door neighbor? Probably not. But none of these failures on my part—including the flubbed IRB and the weird plagiarism-say anything at all about my experiences as a learning specialist between 2003 and 2010. Here’s another short list—a list of the things I have claimed in the past two years and will continue to affirm until I draw my last breath:

-Some of our athletes were, for all intents and purposes, non-readers. They were wonderful guys, and bright guys, but they could not read at the adult level because they had been ill-used by the K-12 education system. They worked hard and made progress while at UNC, but they were horribly mismatched with the UNC curriculum.

-At least until the very recent past, significant numbers of ‘committee case’ admits had serious reading and writing problems that made it next to impossible for them to navigate the UNC curriculum without tons of special help—some of that help illicit, some of it involving the intentional bending of standards.

-I taught several players letters and vowel sounds. Using the most basic Wilson reading system, I had them sound out words with syllable cards like Wis-con-sin and mag-net.

-One athlete I worked with thought that he had come to UNC to learn how to be a barber. This was a sign not only of his naiveté but of the duplicity of the recruiter he had worked with. When Michael McAdoo later claimed that he had been told by a recruiter that he could study Criminal Justice at UNC, though no such major exists here, I nodded my head in sympathy.

-Academic counselors routinely steered athletes in the profit sports to “paper classes” (fake classes, administered by Julius Nyang’oro and/or Debby Crowder, in which no real work was done), in part because some of their athletes could not really handle genuine college-level work and in part because some of their athletes just wanted a break. These athletes—underprepared or uninterested or just malleable athletes- made up a wildly disproportionate number of students in the fake classes.

-It was common knowledge among the athletes that the papers in paper classes were not even read. This is one reason why plagiarism—fully plagiarized papers, real cut-and-paste jobs—was so rampant.

-One athlete asked me to teach him to read well enough so that he could read what was said about him in the news.

-One athlete told me he didn’t know what a paragraph was and had never read a book in his life.

-Knowledge of the paper class system was widespread and widely acknowledged. The system was tolerated because the athletic department had its “needs” and no one much cares about what happens to (black) athletes anyway. They’re supposed to be grateful for the “opportunity” they’ve been handed. ‘They’re better off just because they got to spend some time here,’ goes the common refrain. I have heard faculty say this.

-Oh, and the NCAA never once expressed interest in talking to me. Four years after the scandal erupted, they still haven’t.

In general, what I witnessed—and supported—at UNC between 2003 and 2010 was that athletics was in charge at our university; it had been that way for a long time before I arrived. NCAA eligibility was more important to the caretakers of the system than the education that we had promised our profit-sport athletes. At UNC, we created an entire system that ensured continuing eligibility, and it worked brilliantly. We won national championships, competed for others, and practically never lost an athlete to academic ineligibility. (How many other universities can claim the same record of high athletic achievement with no academic casualties to speak of?)

When confronted with the reality of our wrongdoing in 2010 and 2011, arrogance did not allow us to see our collective character flaw. Our leaders still refuse to acknowledge it in 2014 because they prefer to protect the UNC ‘brand’ and the college-sport status quo. But in allowing our so-called leaders to get away with this record of smoke-blowing and denial (4? 6? 8 investigations later?) we have sacrificed what is most important to an institution of higher learning, an institution that purports to mold young minds-our integrity.

Pointing out the flaws of a whistleblower—some of those flaws real enough, to be sure—may provide a nice distraction for sports fans, but it contributes nothing to the exposure of the most important truths. The important truth, the one that demands attention, is that UNC and the NCAA across the board have failed the football and basketball players whose labors have financed their lavish sports empire. Until UNC and its defenders bravely and honestly face up to their own failures, their efforts to magnify and distort the flaws of the individual most associated with their exposure will inevitably come across as desperate attempts to change the subject. “Mary Willingham” is not the story and never has been. This four-year-old story is about the need for serious top-to-bottom reform in the world of college sport. UNC has shown no interest in taking the lead in pushing for such reforms, but it’s never too late for Tar Heels of good conscience to begin pressuring them to do the right thing. Just remember not to get distracted by the character-assassination sideshow that has consumed so much of UNC’s energy since January of this year. I have my flaws and I’ll admit to them. It’s time for UNC to look in the mirror.

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