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More Folt Follies

An athletics scandal involving virtually illiterate UNC athletes and courses that never met brought down Holden Thorp, Carol Folt’s predecessor as UNC’s Chancellor. Now the entire saga has taken an alarming turn: Folt’s adminstration has disputed the veracity of findings made by researcher Mary Willingham, who tested the athletes in question, reported their weak results, and subsequently received death threats. CNN reports:

Death threats and denial for woman who showed college athletes struggle to read


The death threats, Mary Willingham expected. More shocking is that the University of North Carolina is now disavowing her research as a whistle-blower — research that showed between 8% and 10% of the school’s football and basketball players are reading below a third-grade level.

UNC issued a statement Wednesday night saying it did not believe Willingham’s account of a basketball player who could not read or write.

It went on: “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.”

As well as questioning UNC many times about the story before publication, CNN has also detailed Willingham’s research.

And purported e-mail exchanges obtained by CNN since August show that Willingham did share her findings at least twice — once with Executive Vice Provost James W. Dean Jr., and once with a member of a university committee on academics and athletics.

In addition, Willingham says her research on the students in the athletics programs that make money for the university was done based on screenings that the university itself paid for. And, she says, she has gotten permission from the university several times since 2008 to access those findings to continue her research.

“It’s already available to them,” Willingham 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.”

No comment to date on the controversy from Chancellor Folt.

Addendum: Raleigh’s News & Observer reports that Mary Willingham is standing firm on her charges concerning certain UNC athletes. In addition, she has released two e-mail memos that she sent to various UNC adminstrators concerning her testing of UNC athletes (here and here). Her salient comments are as follows:

I have reviewed academic data for 183 athletes admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012 (all started in English 100). Although several teams are represented in this group, the great majority of the students (85%) come from the revenue sports - mens 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% (110) of these students have reading scores below the 50% range —constitutes 4th-8th grade reading levels - 8-10% are non-readers (39% incidence of LD and or ADHD). If they had applied to any NC Community College, they would have had to, prior to their full acceptance and starting a course of study, complete one to three semesters of developmental reading coursework. 20-25% of these students would have to complete a general competency course prior to the three semesters of reading. Of the 183 students, 45 (about 24%) had UNC GPA’s under 2.0, thus putting them at risk of academic disqualification. Ninety-four of the 183 students, over half, had GPA’s under 2.3. Keep in mind that the bogus system of eligibility - UNC’s paper class system - was assisting these players to stay on the court/field. That system no longer exists.

BloombergBusinessWeek provides background to the evolving scandal:

The corruption of academics at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus could turn into the most revelatory of all of the undergraduate sports scandals in recent memory. Beginning three years ago with what sounded like garden-variety reports of under-the-table payments from agents and improper classroom help for athletes, the affair has spread and deepened to include evidence of hundreds of sham courses offered since the early 1990s. Untold numbers of grades have been changed without authorization and faculty signatures forged—all in the service of an elaborate campaign to keep elite basketball and football players academically eligible to play…

The rot in Chapel Hill undermines UNC’s reputation as one of the nation’s finest public institutions of higher learning. Officials created classes that did not meet. That’s not the only reason more scrutiny is needed. There’s also the particularly pernicious way that the school’s African and Afro-American Studies Department has been used to inflate the GPAs of basketball and football players. The corruption of a scholarly discipline devoted to black history and culture underscores a racial subtext to the exploitation of college athletes that typically goes unidentified in polite discussion. (UNC’s former longtime Afro-Am chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, has been criminally indicted for fraud.)

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