Jay Smith On Mary Willingham’s Enemies


Disclaimer: Mary Willingham initially objected to this posting; I thank her for relenting to my request and allowing me to use her web site as a platform to make it public.

A great deal of energy has been expended since January, 2014 in an effort to disparage, discredit, and defame UNC whistleblower Mary Willingham. Like the ringbearer on his final approach to the fortress of Sauron, Willingham has been subjected to an assault the scope and ferocity of which reveals much about her core mission and the interests of those who wish to obstruct it.

Some of the criticism Willingham has absorbed is understandable. The UNC community needs to know exactly how widespread the problem of athlete underpreparedness really is, and in light of the findings of three experts who have questioned Willingham’s methodology in her study of athlete literacy levels (these questions posed on the basis of partial and imperfect information, it must be noted), the bold claims she made in the famed CNN story from last January will ultimately need to be explained or qualified. The University certainly has grounds for questioning her eagerness to share those claims with the public.

The aggressiveness and the tenor of the attacks on Willingham nevertheless betray an anxiety-a kind of panic-that goes far beyond a disagreement over numbers. The all-out assault reflects a fundamentally cynical strategy to discredit and defame someone who has embarrassing facts to reveal. This strategy first emerged into the open only days after Willingham went public with her knowledge of Academic Support Program malfeasance in November of 2012. Prefiguring the University’s response to the CNN story thirteen months later, athletic department spokesperson Steve Kirschner rushed to accuse Willingham in 2012 of making up key details of her narrative and of “unfairly” attacking all student-athletes at UNC. (The trope that Willingham is out to embarrass, humiliate, and harm athletes is now the stock in trade of athletic department defenders.) Whatever legitimate questions University administrators might have raised about Willingham’s statistics in the wake of the CNN report, their immediate response to the story belied any concern for impartiality or for getting at the truth. In response to the most sensational claim aired by CNN-that Willingham had taught at least one non-reader on the men’s basketball team-both the University, in a general press release, and coach Roy Williams responded by questioning Willingham’s credibility. They instinctively denied her statement-“we do not believe that claim,” said the University-and effectively called her a liar. (The Provost would later make the accusation official, telling Paul Barrett of Bloomberg BusinessWeek that Willingham “lied” about reading abilities.) They made these emphatic statements before they had examined one shred of statistical evidence, before they had talked to Willingham about her experiences, and before they had bothered to see if others on campus might be able to corroborate her story. Instead they reflexively opted for denunciation. (When Willingham subsequently offered to identify the non-reading player for Roy Williams at a personal meeting, he backpedaled; “it’s not my place” to look into such things, he said. No one in the administration took her up on the offer either.)

The instinct to discredit, defame, and destroy has been put vividly on display in the kerfuffle over literacy levels. At an institution committed to truthfulness, one determined to solve problems in an honest and transparent way, a Chancellor or a Provost or a Dean would have contacted Willingham after the CNN report to request a conversation. They would have wanted to hear in intimate detail about the sorts of experiences that lay behind her explosive allegations. (Alas, with the recent exception of one member of the Board of Governors, no UNC academic official-going all the way back to November 2012-has ever contacted Willingham to initiate a conversation about her experiences in the Academic Support Program; they have preferred to “hear no evil.”) In this instance, instead of initiating a dialogue, the Provost, after a series of testy email exchanges, commandeered Willingham’s evidence, turned it over to a never-fully-identified group of University insiders to be picked apart in ways unknown, and then plotted an attack strategy that would be unveiled at a Faculty Council meeting. At that infamous meeting on January 17, the Admissions director indignantly declared that UNC only admits students who can succeed academically (he cited SAT scores since fall of 2012 as his proof), and the Provost provided a selective dissection of the evidence for Willingham’s claims about reading levels. Disregarding her actual experiences, and leaving aside the full range of measures that Willingham used to arrive at her reading level estimates, he focused on SATA RV (Reading Vocabulary) scores and Willingham’s alleged misreading of those scores; standard scores had been mistaken for grade levels, he asserted. (He offered no proof to back his claims of Willingham’s misreading and he shared no information about the methodology of the “internal group” that had evidently come to this conclusion.) He then proceeded to decry the “unfairness” of Willingham’s claims. They were a “travesty,” and her work was “unworthy of this University.” (It is at least mildly ironic that the Provost pronounced on the unworthiness of Willingham at the same meeting where he himself made an embarrassingly untruthful claim about Dan Kane’s alleged refusal to correct the record from a previous N&O story; he apparently did not notice Kane standing at the back of the room. The very next day the Provost had to retract his claim that he had ever asked Kane to do anything.)

Next, the Provost commissioned three experts to assess the validity of Willingham’s reading levels assessments. He directed them specifically to focus on SATA RV scores and their utility as a measure of reading ability. Remarkably, the Provost and his team actually went to the trouble of removing SAT and ACT scores from the datasheet Willingham had provided them. He also neglected to provide the experts SATA RV raw scores (held in a secure location off campus), SATA Writing Mechanics scores, and the WAIS scores that had helped determine learning disabilities for a significant portion of the subset of athletes Willingham had studied. He wanted the experts to focus solely on SATA RV standard scores and their alleged misuse. In his directions to the outside examiners he even included as one of his “key questions” the following: “Did Mary Willingham mistakenly use RV standard scores instead of grade equivalents to report on UNC student-athletes’ reading grade levels?”

The purpose of the Provost’s campaign-from the days leading up to the January 17 Faculty Council meeting through the commissioning of the “expert” review-was not to understand better the academic preparedness of UNC athletes; the purpose was to find ammunition to use against Mary Willingham. UNC-Chapel Hill took as its mandate the destruction of a troublesome whistleblower. Administrators made the decision to personalize the conflict and to train the University’s artillery fire on the individual who had embarrassed them.

Personally, I am prepared to believe that Willingham’s statistics may be off. (Though the “expert” claim that a majority of Willingham’s subset of 176 students, most of them special admits, were reading at college level when they arrived on campus certainly stands in dramatic contrast to indications from national statistics. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, tells us that only about one-third of all eighth graders and only fourteen percent of African-American male eighth graders are reading at grade level. This captures a slight downward trajectory in secondary school, since sixteen percent of African-American males were reading proficiently in the fourth grade. Would UNC claim that it recruits top African-American athletes only from among the fourteen percent, or less, who are reading at grade level? Such a claim would defy credulity.) In any case, there is plenty to argue about in the numbers, no doubt.

But the clash between Willingham and the University has never really been about statistics. The clash is all about the current model of collegiate athletics and whether the University can tolerate in its midst an insider who is determined to expose the defects of the collegiate model. The vehemence of the assault on Willingham shows how desperately UNC administrators, and UNC sports fans, cling to the myth that all is basically well in the Emerald City. Willingham urges us to look behind the curtain; the wizards of South Building will use all the smoke, mirrors, and flames in their possession to distract public attention from the curtain and the ugliness behind it. They will even aim some of their flames at the person of Mary Willingham.

The Provost’s intemperate language at the January 17 Faculty Council meeting (“unworthy,” “travesty”) authorized the invective of hatemongers everywhere, and their hate shows no signs of abating. One of the geniuses on Twitter has adopted the handle “Mary WillingScam.” (He is followed by, among others, Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham.) Chief among the haters, however, is UNC learning specialist Bradley Bethel, who now plays Gollum to Willingham’s Frodo. Bethel has spent much of his time in the past month or so penning screeds against Willingham (with one directed also at me.) Bethel disputes Willingham’s statistics, but his over-the-top rhetoric makes clear, again, that numbers are not really the issue. He wants to protect his “precious”-the collegiate model of sport whose virtues he has made part of his own identity, the very justification for his professional life.

What Bethel most wants to effect in his writings against Willingham is her destruction as a credible witness against the machine. He attacks her not only for getting her numbers wrong (a matter that remains more than a little ambiguous to those of us paying careful attention) but even more so for her alleged character flaws. She is, according to Bethel, unethical, dishonest, hypocritical, non-transparent, unprofessional, and-the richest insult of all-driven by a desire for profit. (I come off only slightly better. In addition to being dishonest I am pretentious, smug, condescending and pathetic.) To accomplish his goal of defaming Willingham, Bethel is willing to stoop to surprising levels of duplicity. He discounts her anecdote about the athlete who needed help sounding out the syllables of Wis-con-sin, for example, by claiming that he “suspects” that the athlete merely had a learning disability which could be “overcome with technological accommodations.” He wrote this interesting diagnosis only months after complaining to Chancellor Folt that there were “many” special admit athletes at UNC who could not succeed in the classroom “no matter how much support they receive.” So…he was aware of the “many” who had no chance, but quite sure that Willingham had never encountered them?

Such rhetorical legerdemain is to be expected from Bethel, since the purpose of his many endless interventions in the debate is to discredit his enemy. All’s fair in war, after all. He is therefore not bothered that his prose seethes with anger. “Nothing” Willingham says “should be believed or taken seriously,” he warns the masses. Indeed, Willingham should “retreat from public life” and try to make herself useful in some quiet corner of the world. If she persists in speaking out, everyone else needs to remember that lying comes naturally to her. Please pay no attention to that woman! “My precious!”

A few randomly assorted facts about Mary Willingham might help to counter the image of the unethical rogue who seeks to “harm and embarrass” athletes while bringing down the entire edifice of college athletics.

Readers might be interested to learn, for example, that Willingham was a “student-athlete” herself, a swimmer at Loyola University of Chicago. She applied for her job at UNC after discovering that Chapel Hill High School, where she worked for several years, had illiterate students but no plan to help them. (She came to UNC because she just knew that a University would never tolerate such conditions.) Willingham was a cherished employee in UNC’s Academic Support Program for student athletes, continually being offered more responsibilities and higher duties than she felt comfortable taking on. (Has anyone noticed that none of her former superiors in ASPSA-not Robert Mercer, not John Blanchard, not Dick Baddour-has stepped forward to rail against Willingham or to suggest that she was ever in any way unethical? This is because they know that she was the most ethical person in the building, the one who constantly raised concerns about the bending of rules and various threats to academic integrity.) Willingham has never said or done anything with an intention to be dishonest or deceitful, all of Bethel’s overheated jeremiads notwithstanding.

After a twelve-hour work day one Sunday some years ago, Willingham collapsed in tears after failing to get one of her functionally illiterate athletes to produce his own sentences for a paper that was due the next day. Once she realized that she was composing the paper herself, she called off the study session, sent the player home, and sat at her desk to cry in private. (Does this seem like a person determined to embarrass and harm athletes?) Just this year, Willingham helped to fund-out of her own pocket-a study abroad trip that one of her under-resourced students desperately wanted to take. (Thank goodness this was no athlete who could be tarred with the accusation of accepting an “impermissible benefit.”) Willingham has not “profited” in any way from any of her activities. Indeed, she has spent thousands of her own money to fly around the country networking with reformers of similar mind and hiring consultants and lawyers of various specialties. She expects to make little-to-no money from any book sales. (Any agent would have told her-and at least one did tell her-that speaking out and sharing details in advance of publication actually depresses sales, it does nothing to boost them.) Willingham has repeatedly expressed her intention to spend the balance of her life working for literacy programs and fighting for the cause of NCAA reform.

This is the woman Provost Dean labeled “unworthy,” the woman the rabid attack dog Bethel depicts as a dishonest hypocrite, a disgrace to universities everywhere.

Universities and their athletic departments often treat whistleblowers harshly. Georgia’s Jan Kemp had to sue for wrongful termination; Tennessee’s Linda Bensel-Myers was hounded from Knoxville and eventually migrated west to the University of Denver; Minnesota’s Jan Gangelhoff suffered severe mental stress and died at the young age of 56. (Why are so many athletic truth-tellers women? Could it be that they are dedicated educators who see injustices up close? Could it be that they see the young men in their charge as students and not as disposable gladiators?) Between 1990, when I joined the faculty at UNC, and 2010, when Marvin Austin’s tweeting alerted the world to the existence of something rotten in Chapel Hill, I never thought for a moment that my University could behave like an athletics-first institution. I never imagined that its leaders would shun a whistleblower, that they would protect myths rather than confront problems. Not the University of Bill Friday, Dean Smith, the Carolina Way, and all those impressive Rhodes scholars. Surely such a thing could not happen here.

Alas, sometimes the truth hurts. UNC-Chapel Hill would do well to accept that reality with grace, and to commit itself to behaving with dignity once again. Calling off all those bitter attack dogs might be one place to start.

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