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A CHE Wrap-up of UNC/Folt

CHE Logo.jpgIf you have not been taking the time to follow Carol Folt’s flaming self-destruction down at UNC in l’affaire Willingham, the Chronicle of Higher Education has published a crisp summary of the entire mess. Carol is not mentioned by name in the piece, but the strategy adopted by her adminstration is depicted with deserved disdain.

Addendum: Listen here to whistleblower Mary Wllingham being interviewed on UNC student radio’s Carolina Connection show. She sounds like a straight shooter to me.

Addendum: Carol’s Provost James Dean flew to New York on Saturday to talk to Paul Barrett, the Bloomberg reporter who is covering the UNC scandals. After a lengthy review of the fake classes controversy, talk turned to Mary Willingham’s concerns about many UNC athletes’ semi-literacy. Barrett reports:

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, Mary Willingham has done more than anyone else to shed light on the problems at UNC. A campus “learning specialist” who tutored athletes for years, she went public in 2012 with the revelation that she and colleagues steered some of their charges toward fake “paper classes” and otherwise grappled with well-muscled undergraduates who couldn’t read or write at a college level. Dean and other officials have responded to Willingham’s whistle-blowing by viciously attacking her in public and condemning some statistical analysis she’s done of athlete reading skills. The debate about Willingham’s research deserves resolution; if she’s made mistakes, then invalid results should be set aside. (I haven’t come to a conclusion on the statistical clash.)

Willingham’s larger contribution, however, eclipses her disputed research—a point UNC’s leadership still doesn’t want to admit. It matters whether her numbers are solid, but it matters far more whether she’s telling the basic truth about the woeful education that’s been offered to athletes with whom she’s worked personally.

Dean, normally a measured man and every inch the courtly former business school dean, got emotional in our conversation when discussing Willingham. “She’s said that our students can’t read, our athletes can’t read, and that’s a lie,” he said. “Mary Willingham has done our students a great disservice.”

That’s a gross distortion of Willingham’s statements. Interpreted fairly, what she’s said is that her analysis of test data shows that 18 out of about 180 athletes whose records she assessed could be considered to read at a grammar-school level. She’s never claimed that most, let alone all, of the 800 athletes on campus at any given time are illiterate. And she has said nothing at all about the larger student body of 18,000.

When I interrupted Dean to point out his distortion of Willingham’s claims, he immediately conceded he had misspoken and restated his criticism in more precise terms. He also said that he doesn’t think Willingham is a liar—then why use the word “lie”?—assumes she’s well meaning, and shares with him and Folt the ultimate goal of seeing that top athletes leave Chapel Hill with an education that prepares them for life beyond the sports arena.

All good in a conference room on the third floor of the Bloomberg building. I appreciated Dean’s willingness to dial back his verbal assault on Willingham. Killing the messenger solves nothing, and it’s beneath the dignity of UNC. The very next step university leaders could take to signal their new candor and good will is to stop all public pillorying of Willingham and instead honor her as someone who’s bravely revealing inconvenient truths.

I predict that Folt and Dean will one day be the object of a business school case study on how not to handle a PR nightmare.


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