Closing the book on Mary Willingham
Posted August 5
Let's go ahead and put this on the table before discussing anything else. The ongoing story about North Carolina and lecture-style courses that either rarely met or didn't see the inside of a classroom at all should have been wrapped up by now.
Instead of thoroughly investigating the academic issues that were discovered in the wake of an NCAA investigation into the football program in 2010, the university did what most institutions do in these situations. North Carolina tried to box the issue, put a lovely bow on top of it and hope everyone moves on to the next thing. Except that didn't happen. Here we are in the summer of 2014 and waiting for Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor who is working independently from UNC, to deliver what should be the definitive story of how the Department of African and Afro-American Studies became the center of an academic scandal.
Along the way, we've seen different story arcs and a wide array of characters emerge from the fateful day Marvin Austin tweeted Rick Ross rap lyrics. It all plays out like a boring version Marvel's Cinematic Universe without the payoff of "The Avengers." Rather than ridiculous characters like Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon, we're stuck with Mary Willingham and Bradley Bethel playing out some sort of "Guardians of the Academic Galaxy."
In fairness to Willingham, she's long been an outspoken critic of the NCAA. Considering her work with student-athletes, her anecdotal behind the scenes perspective was helpful in counterbalancing the platitudes of amateurism spun by NCAA president Mark Emmert.
It wasn't until CNN morphed Willingham into a whistle-blower that her role in North Carolina's academic scandal became unsuitable for her particular experience. Both Willingham and the university locked horns over the research. It was always going to be an unfair matchup, given the backing of an entire institution versus an individual, but Willingham made it easy for the university to discredit her level of expertise.
Regardless, Willingham started doubling down on Twitter and ESPN's "Outside The Lines" to mixed results while North Carolina hired three outside research experts in an attempt to debunk her conclusions.
'05' UNC basketball champs starting 5 +1 took a combined 69 paper classes. truth=transcripts=transparency. A real education= #ncaareform— Mary Willingham (@paperclassinc) April 7, 2014
Only Willingham knows when the switch flipped to scorched Earth mode from NCAA critic with an eye on reform. On one hand, it was certainly red meat for the folks who took great pleasure and delight in North Carolina's embarrassments. On the other hand, Willingham made it easy for her detractors to question her motives.
If North Carolina's expert review of Willingham's student-athlete reading level research was the first strike against her credibility, she has to sit down following questions over her IRB application and alleged masters thesis plagiarism.
“Academics & Athletics – A Clash of Cultures: Division I Football Programs," completed in 2009, yielded four notably lifted segments after WRAL ran the thesis through four different plagiarism checking websites. Willingham told Dan Kane of the N&O these instances were inadvertent cases of improper citations.
Given North Carolina's piñata status last four years, the folks who feel the university was unfairly hammered thanks to her claims are entirely justified getting their ya ya's out discrediting Wilingham. It's also understandable for the same people to clown any media that simply ran with Willingham as their only source of information.
But keep in mind, North Carolina isn't mired in this mess because of Willingham. UNC did most of it to themselves with countless investigations that did little more than contain it.
“Whatever I did, I did, and, you know, whatever,” Willingham explained to the N&O. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
There's also nothing she can do at this point to regain her credibility.