Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The UNC Media Scandal: “Whatever,” Rosa and Bill

This essay is written by guest author Thomas Eckerman, an attorney who received his B.A. degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and his J.D. degree from Tulane University School of Law.

One of the last and weakest arguments of deceptive people is “You can’t shoot the messenger.” But there is a moral responsibility to figuratively shoot a messenger bearing false claims. The local and national media ignored that moral responsibility with respect to Mary Willingham; and in their attempts to scandalize UNC, they scandalized themselves.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jay Smith Makes Accusation of Mental Instability

On April 1, I posted an essay, titled "Silent Dishonesty," in which I revealed that Distinguished Professor Jay Smith knew former learning specialist Mary Willingham had publicly misrepresented the intended purpose of her infamous research on UNC athletes' reading levels.

According to Smith, my exposing his silent dishonesty makes me mentally unstable.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mary Willingham Appears to have Plagiarized Passages of her Master's Thesis

Oh, the irony.

Unfortunately for Mary Willingham, her Pack Pride cheerleaders are not the only fan base who can scan documents for plagiarism.

Willingham, readers may recall, is the former reading specialist who became The N&O's whistleblower extraordinaire in November 2012 when she made the unverified allegation that UNC academic support staff had tolerated cheating among athletes. In her breakout media appearance, Willingham contended that she became concerned about academic integrity early in her career working with athletes, after one athlete presented her with a paper Willingham described as a "cut-and-paste job."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Steering the Narrative (Part 3): The Martin Report

This is Part 3 of a four-part essay. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Omitting Key Findings

The N&O’s reporting and editorializing on the Martin Report may be best described as journalistic malfeasance, and executive editor John Drescher is the culprit most blameworthy.

Jim Martin is a former North Carolina governor and U.S. representative with a PhD in Chemistry. With the assistance of Baker Tilly, a national accounting firm, Martin conducted the most extensive investigation of the UNC scandal to date, gathering data as far back as 1994. After he concluded his investigation, he presented his Report to the UNC Board of Governors, on December 20, 2012. In Martin’s presentation, he distilled the Report down to 15 key findings that conjointly support his conclusion (pp. 71 – 74). However, his conclusionthat the AFRI/AFAM scandal was an academics scandal, not an athletics scandalwas not the conclusion Drescher was counting on for his star investigative reporter to win a Pulitzer.

In response, Drescher has coordinated a propaganda campaign to discredit the Report, grossly misrepresenting its findings in an editorial he himself wrote and directing four other N&O writers (with reinforcement from the editorial board) to dismiss the Report in similar fashion. Drescher and his staff’s strategy has been to overemphasize the importance of select findings while cunningly withholding reporting on the majority of the findings.

In Drescher’s editorial, published on February 1, 2013, his manipulation of the facts is so egregious it is not merely a matter of misinterpretation: it is a blatantly dishonest reading of the Martin Report. When one of Martin’s 15 key findings had to be retracted, Drescher seized the opportunity to exaggerate the significance of that finding and thereby call the entire Report into question. In both the title and the first sentence of his editorial, Drescher refers to the finding as a “key finding,” but nowhere in his editorial does he inform readers that the finding was just one of 15 key findings, the other 14 of which are still intact. (Throughout this essay, I will cite aspects of the other 14 findings. Readers interested in examining all 14 findings in their entirety should read pp. 71 – 74 of the Martin Report.)

The retracted finding was that an Athletics official and the Director of the Academic Support Program twice raised concerns, first during a meeting in 2002 and then in 2006, with the Faculty Athletics Committee about the lecture classes Julius Nyang’oro conducted as independent studies. After the Martin Report was released, Dan Kane queried the faculty members on that committee, and he discovered that Martin never interviewed them about those meetings. Moreover, none of the faculty members could recall concerns being raised. Unquestionably, Martin should have interviewed those faculty members to verify the claims about the two meetings, and without verification that finding should not be included in the Report.

However, that finding, again, was only one of 15 that Martin cited to support his conclusion. His other 14 findings remain incontrovertible, though Drescher editorializes as if they do not even exist. 

Drescher's editorial is replete with suggestions that Martin staked his conclusion entirely on that one retracted finding and that the entire Report reflects the questionableness of that finding. For example, after Drescher quotes Martin asserting that “findings and conclusions should be based on evidence, not hearsay and imagination,” Drescher smugly interjects, “If only that were what Martin’s report did.” In light of the unverified anecdotes and quotes Dan Kane has included in his reporting on the UNC scandal (the subject of the first two parts of this essay), Drescher’s criticizing Martin for a singular, ultimately irrelevant misstep is hypocritical in the extreme. What is more, Drescher knows the Martin Report’s 101 pages (including Addendum) contain an overwhelming amount of hard evidence, including voluminous statistical data, that extends well beyond the one retracted finding. Drescher's selective citing of the data demonstrates he has read the report and is intelligent enough to comprehend it; however, he is too committed to the sensationalized narrative to represent the Report's findings with fairness. 

Consider, for example, the following passage from Drescher’s editorial:

At issue were 172 bogus classes within the African and Afro-American Studies department. About 45 percent of the students in those classes were athletes; fewer than 5 percent of UNC students are athletes. Baker Tilly explained that discrepancy by noting that a disproportionate share of athletes are African-American and more likely to take a course in that department. 
That might be a factor. But the evidence also is overwhelming that the academic support staff, which at the time effectively reported to the athletic department, knew these classes did not meet and steered athletes toward them

Drescher’s reporting leaves readers with the impression that Martin merely rationalized athletes’ disproportionate enrollment in the anomalous AFRI and AFAM classes by citing the fact that UNC athletes are disproportionately African American. Drescher, however, neglects to mention an entire section of the Addendum, titled “Summary of ‘Clustering Analysis,’” which thoroughly demonstrates the seriousness with which Martin took the athletes’ disproportionate enrollment (pp. 5  6).

For his analysis of clustering, Martin and Baker Tilly investigated whether athletes’ enrollment in the grouping of anomalous “paper classes” was any higher than in other groupings of classes in which athletes were disproportionately enrolled, both within and outside the AFRI/AFAM department. After identifying several “cluster groupings” of classes across multiple departments, Martin investigated them to assess whether any irregularities in their administration had occurred. He found no irregularities in any cluster groupings outside the grouping of anomalous AFRI/AFAM classes. (The other cluster groupings are referred to as “cleared.”) The Report explains that one reason cluster groupings attracted athletes was because the classes fit into athletes’ exceptionally busy schedules better than did other sections of the same courses.

Most importantly, Martin and Baker Tilly found that athletes’ enrollment in several cleared cluster groupings across multiple departments was consistent with athletes’ enrollment in the grouping of anomalous classes. In the grouping of anomalous AFRI/AFAM classes, athletes’ enrollment rate was 44.9%; in the cleared cluster grouping of AFRI/AFAM classes, athletes’ enrollment rate was actually slightly higher, at 48.9%; and in the cleared cluster groupings outside the AFRI/AFAM department, athletes’ enrollment rates ranged from 44% to 47.7%. In other words, athletes’ enrollment in the grouping of anomalous classes was no more disproportionate than it was in several cleared cluster groupings of classes across multiple departments. All of the cluster groupings, including that of the “paper classes,” appear to have attracted athletes for the same reason: the classes accommodated athletes’ exceptionally busy schedules better than other classes.

Readers would not understand that, however, if Drescher’s editorial (and the N&O's news reports) were their only source of information.

Additionally, the percentage of football players majoring in AFRI or AFAM between 2001 - 2010 never exceeded 13%. Furthermore, only three times during that same timespan did the number of men’s basketball players majoring in AFRI or AFAM exceed two, and the percentage exceeded 25% only once. Yet Drescher avers that the “overwhelming” evidence demonstrates academic counselors “steered” athletes to the anomalous AFRI and AFAM classes. If “steered” in this context means anything other than sometimes recommended, then Drescher’s criteria for evidence do not reflect any epistemology with which I am familiar. Conjecture and insinuation are not typically understood as evidence.

Indeed, the narrative Drescher and his staff have been steering seems to be underscored by a uniquely journalistic epistemology that is defined by a single principle: a statement becomes true if a journalist can convince readers it is true. Journalism as a discipline of verification is clearly not the journalism Drescher practices.

Neglecting Context

As mentioned above, Drescher’s campaign against the Martin Report has been carried out by multiple N&O writers. Not surprisingly, Dan Kane has been at the forefront of the charge.

Altogether, the Martin Report and Addendum totals 101 pages and contains not only the key findings and the data on which those findings are based but also an explanation of the procedures, or methodology, by which Martin and Baker Tilly collected, analyzed, and interpreted the data. (If only Mary Willingham were so thorough.) Yet Kane, an investigative reporter, cites alarmingly scant data from the Report and never even mentions the procedures, allowing detractors to dismiss the data as a “smokescreen” meant to divert the public’s attention from the real scandal. (By the way, Pack Pride’s censure of the Martin Report’s emphasis on quantitative data is rather ironic in light of the fact that NCSU is best known for its Engineering school.)

Notwithstanding Kane’s complacent disregard for the procedures, the Report’s methodology provides context to and justification for the data, and it demonstrates the relation between the data, the interpretive findings, and the conclusion. To illustrate some of the primary procedures, I have included the below diagram from the Report, and I encourage those who want to gain a more comprehensive understanding to read the “Approach for Completion of this Review” section on pages 4 – 5 of the Report. Because this essay is already lengthy, the diagram will have to suffice for now so that we can focus on the data itself.

Again, Kane cites very little data from the Martin Report, selecting only that which he can attempt to explain away. His article written with Andrew Curliss following the release of the Addendum is the clearest example of Kane's selective reporting. For nearly every one of the few data points Kane and Curliss cite about athletes in the anomalous classes, they neglect to cite the corresponding data point about non-athletes. By so doing, they remove the context in which to understand the data, thereby leading readers to sensationalized inferences. Reporting statistics with little to no context has been one of the standard methods by which N&O journalists have steered the narrative.

For example, consider the lede and following sentence in Kane and Curliss’s article:

New data released Friday about a long-running academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill show athletes made up nearly half of the enrollments in 172 bogus classes within the African studies department, and also accounted for a just under half of 512 suspect grade changes during that period. 
Their average grade: 3.56, between a B-plus and an A-minus.

To readers unfamiliar with the Martin Report, Kane and Curliss’s opening two sentences may seem like a straightforward account of the findings. However, absent from the findings Kane and Curliss present are several other, related findings that provide context.

First, although Kane and Curliss mention the 172 anomalous AFRI and AFAM classes, they neglect to mention the finding that not all of the anomalous classes had athletes enrolled. In fact, there were more anomalous classes with only non-athletes enrolled (26) than there were anomalous classes with only athletes enrolled (21).

Furthermore, the isolated second sentence leaves readers with the impression that athletes were being graded with exceptional leniency. However, Kane and Curliss neglect to mention that the average grade point for athletes (3.56) was actually slightly lower than for non-athletes (3.63).

Additionally, like Drescher, Kane and Curliss mention that “nearly half of the enrollments” in the anomalous classes were athletes, but the reporters neglect to explain that the 44.9% athlete enrollment rate was no more disproportionate than it was in several cleared cluster groupings across multiple departments.

Kane and Curliss also neglect to report any context for understanding the unauthorized and suspected unauthorized grade changes. Among those irregular grade changes, Martin and Baker Tilly identified some that were made to permanent grades and some that were made to temporary grades. The distinction is important because, as the Report states,

We would expect student-athletes to have more temporary grade changes than non-athlete students, as the demands of an athletic schedule are more likely to create conflicts or delays in student-athletes’ abilities to [complete assignments] at scheduled times.

Therefore, in classes in which irregular grade changes to permanent and temporary grades occurred for athletes and non-athletes alike, we would only suspect preferential treatment for athletes if their permanent grades were irregularly changed at a rate higher than were non-athletes’ permanent grades. Martin and Baker Tilly found the opposite. The 22 irregular grade changes to athletes’ permanent grades constituted only 1.6% of athletes’ enrollments, whereas the 75 irregular grade changes to non-athletes’ permanent grades constituted 3% of non-athletes’ enrollments. In other words, non-athletes were almost twice as likely as athletes to receive an irregular grade change to a permanent grade.

In short, Drescher, Kane, and Curliss (and other N&O writers) have neglected to report multiple findings from the Martin Report, including the following four: (1) athletes enrolled in the “paper classes” no more disproportionately than they enrolled in several other, cleared cluster groupings of classes across multiple departments, (2) not all of the “paper classes” had athletes enrolled, and there were more classes with only non-athletes than there were classes with only athletes, (3) athletes’ average grade point in the “paper classes” was slightly lower than was non-athletes’ average grade point, and (4) non-athletes were nearly twice as likely as athletes to receive an irregular grade change to a permanent grade.

Those are not the findings of an athletics scandal.

In his editorial on the Martin Report, Drescher writes, “Martin and Baker Tilly seemed more determined to absolve the athletic department of blame than to get to the bottom of what went wrong.” If the straw man version of the Martin Report constructed by Drescher and his staff were the real version, then Drescher’s assertion would have merit. However, as Drescher knows, the straw man version is an insidious fabrication propagated by the N&O and parroted by complacent journalists from the national media. N&O writers have executed their campaign against the Martin Report by overemphasizing the importance of the one retracted finding and consistently reporting only select findings while omitting other findings that would provide context. When we examine the Martin Report ourselves and contrast it to the N&O’s straw man version of it, we see that the converse of Drescher’s assertion is more accurate: Drescher and his staff seemed more determined to implicate the Athletics department than to represent the findings of the Martin Report with fairness.

Part 4 is forthcoming but will be delayed beyond its originally intended publishing date.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Steering the Narrative (Part 2): Mary Willingham's and Michael McAdoo'sOverlapping Claims

This is Part 2 of a four-part essay. You can read Part 1 here.

“Steering” Michael McAdoo

Former UNC basketball player Rashad McCants has been, in the words of another former UNC basketball player, quite the “clown” lately. However, despite his onslaught of defamatory and ludicrous claims, he deserves some credit for his willingness to disclose his transcript to ESPN. That is more than can be said for former UNC football player Michael McAdoo, who has also made negative claims about his academic experiences at UNC but has never provided even circumstantial evidence (beyond his plagiarized paper) to verify those claims. While UNC detractors cry for more athletes to release their transcripts, perhaps they should direct their pleas first to McAdoo.

McAdoo initially interjected himself into the controversy over the UNC scandal in an op-ed written by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera three months after Mary Willingham’s first appearance in the news. Throughout his interviews, McAdoo has consistently lamented his experience of being “steered” to the AFAM major and the substandard AFRI and AFAM “paper classes.” Not a single interviewer, however, has ever posed to McAdoo any challenging questions to solicit from him a rich explanation of how he was “steered,” nor have any journalists asked the former player to provide any academic records, such as transcripts, that could provide relevant insight into his academic experience. Instead, McAdoo’s vague and unverified claims, as reported by Nocera, Dan Kane, and others, have left careful readers with too many unanswered questions to develop a comprehensive understanding of the situation.

Nocera’s column about McAdoo warrants scrutiny here because it was published nearly a year before Kane wrote his own story about McAdoo. Therefore, as an investigative reporter doing his job, Kane should have scrutinized Nocera’s column and inquired about any discrepancies or missing details before Kane himself reported on McAdoo. Unfortunately, however, Kane did not question Nocera’s portrayal of McAdoo nearly as critically as he questioned Jay Bilas’s portrayal of Roy Williams. On the contrary, Kane seems to have accepted Nocera’s entire portrayal without even the slightest measure of scrutiny.

Published online the evening of February 4, 2013, Nocera’s column is titled “Academic Counseling Racket.” That afternoon, Nocera emailed one of my former colleagues to inquire about her “side of the story.” However, the general tone of the email demonstrated very clearly that his inquiry was merely a formality: he had already come to his conclusion before contacting her. His email, in its entirety, is as follows:

I spent about an hour today talking to Michael McAdoo and his mother. I wanted to understand what an athlete goes through when there is an NCAA/university investigation. In the course of the conversation he told me that he had no say in which classes he took, that the “paper classes” he “attended” were all the result of academic support telling him to take those classes, that no one ever told the players they shouldn’t talk to Jennifer Wiley, even though the department had fired her. He mentioned you in particular, saying that you told him he would be unable to major in criminal justice, as he had originally planned. I am planning to say most of this in my column, which I will start writing shortly (it is for tomorrow’s paper). I would very much appreciate hearing your side of the story. I can be reached at the two numbers below. Thanks in advance. Joe Nocera.

First, the fact that Nocera went from interviewing his subjects to publishing the article in less than a day reveals all we need to know about his (dis)regard for the principle of verification. Evidently, Nocera believes that if a New York Times writer refers to his stories as op-eds rather than news reports, the writer need not comply with any journalistic standards. Forget the social responsibility bestowed upon writers who command a platform as prominent as the New York Times Opinion Page. Opinions, after all, do not require verified facts, right?

That Nocera had obviously reached his conclusion prior to contacting my former colleague made her hesitant to call him. Nonetheless, she briefly spoke with him, though to little avail. During their conversation, she confirmed to Nocera that she did, in fact, tell McAdoo he could not major in Criminal Justice. However, she had good reason for the prohibition against that particular major: UNC does not have it. McAdoo and his mother could have easily discerned that by visiting the university’s website. Nocera himself could have obtained that information within seconds and then asked McAdoo and his mother—who is a schoolteacher—why they had never bothered to view the lists of majors at the colleges that recruited McAdoo. Instead, Nocera crafted a narrative of victimization, in which he strategically omits the part of the story where McAdoo and his college-educated mother should have been more attentive to McAdoo’s future college plans. Insinuating that McAdoo was misled about UNC’s majors, Nocera writes,

[McAdoo] had been an O.K. student in high school, and his mother, a schoolteacher, was adamant that he get a college education. He told his recruiters he wanted to major in criminal justice. Once he got on campus, however, he was quickly informed by his academic counselors that North Carolina didn’t have a criminal justice major.

What Nocera failed to include in his story is the fact that, during the recruiting process at UNC, every football player and his parent(s) attend at least one academics presentation that includes information about UNC’s majors. Nocera never outright claims McAdoo’s “recruiters” lied to him, but by skipping the part of the story in which McAdoo and his mother would have been informed about UNC’s majors, Nocera insinuates McAdoo was misled.

Nocera’s insinuation underscores his thesis that academic counseling is a “racket” designed strictly to keep athletes eligible to play. Nocera writes, “According to McAdoo, his counselor picked his major, African-American studies, because it wouldn’t interfere with football practice.” If McAdoo’s allegation were true, Nocera’s argument might be sound. However, McAdoo was not an AFAM major. As the media guide from his last year indicates, McAdoo was an Exercise and Sport Science (EXSS) major.

In other words, McAdoo appears to have lied.

Nocera could have easily verified McAdoo’s major by visiting the UNC Athletics department’s website, where all the football media guides from the previous 13 years are available. In 2008, McAdoo’s first year, he was unlisted in the media guide. The next year, his major was undeclared, which is common for first- and second-year students still contemplating their options. All UNC students are required to commit to a major by their third year, and McAdoo declared EXSS his major. When exactly McAdoo declared EXSS his major is not public knowledge, but, of course, Nocera (and the other journalists who have reported on McAdoo) could have determined that information by persuading McAdoo to give the university consent to release his academic records. Regardless, we can be confident that McAdoo initially took time to consider different majors and then declared EXSS his major. No one compelled him to major in AFAM.

Again, even in the absence of transcripts and other academic records, a journalist doing his job would have solicited the details and rich descriptions from McAdoo to provide readers with an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the situation. Neither Nocera nor Kane, however, demonstrated any interest in the relevant facts about McAdoo’s academic experience. Kane, writing nearly a year later, reports that McAdoo was “steered” to four “paper classes” during his three years at UNC. Commenting on one “paper class” in particular, McAdoo claimed,

[The academic counselors] pretty much put me in that class. They pretty much told me . . . that I might want to consider that class and I really don’t have much time to think about it, so (I might) want to take that class while it was available.

Using quotes in which the speaker repeats the phrase “pretty much” pretty much demonstrates Kane has no genuine interest in details and rich explanations. Kane’s complacency becomes even more apparent when we contrast McAdoo’s early quote in the story with another quote from close to the end of the article. As the story is nearing its conclusion, McAdoo explained that he and other players were happy to take the “paper classes.” He stated,

I didn't think twice about it. I was young and [the academic counselors] was like, “You could get a quick three (credit) hours.”

So was McAdoo “pretty much” forced into the classes, or was he happy to take them?

As is often the case with Kane’s stories, careful readers are left with many lingering questions. If McAdoo was an AFAM major, as he claimed to Nocera, would the four “paper classes” not have counted toward his major? If he was an EXSS major, as indicated by the media guide, did the four classes not count toward his general education requirements? Why, out of the approximately 30 total classes he would have taken over three years was he "steered" to only four of the “paper classes”? Were there other classes he wanted to take instead? If so, could he demonstrate those other classes were available and counted toward his degree requirements? How successful was he, the son of a schoolteacher, in his other approximately 26 classes? Did he himself ever request to take a “paper class”? Did any professors from classes outside of AFAM ever suspect him of cheating? Could McAdoo be projecting false memories onto his experience to absolve himself of the blame for his dismissive attitude toward academics?

Journalists, pundits, and UNC detractors have cited McAdoo’s claims as evidence of the “academic counseling racket,” but, as is evident, McAdoo has misrepresented his academic experience, and the circumstances surrounding his enrollment in four “paper classes” over three years remain vague and unverified. McAdoo, like McCants, is not a credible source. (Click here for a must-read story about another former college football player who misrepresented his collegiate experience to the media.)

"Hundreds" of Fake Degrees

Of course, both Nocera and Kane also quoted Willingham in their respective stories about McAdoo, as many journalists have over the past year and a half. Willingham has consistently parroted McAdoo’s claim that academic counselors “steered” football players to the AFRI and AFAM majors and “paper classes” to keep the players eligible for competition. She even founded a company called Paper Class Inc., with the motto, “We must offer equal access to a real education for ALL of our students." However, despite consistently reciting the catchphrase “real education” across her interviews, she has never explained its meaning. When interviewed on HBO’s Real Sports, Willingham made the staggering claim that “hundreds” of UNC athletes were denied a “real degree from the University of North Carolina.” Bernie Goldberg, the journalist conducting the interview, did not bother asking her to explain how she estimated the number to be in the hundreds or what she meant by a “real degree.” Why would he? Sensationalism, not details and nuance, wins Emmy Awards.

The same day the Real Sports episode aired, Kane published perhaps his most pathetic article to date, offering no original contributions and merely rehashing parts of the Real Sports episode (as well as parts of an ESPN Outside the Lines episode). Published as an entry in the N&O’s “Investigations Blog,” Kane’s article would have been an appropriate medium through which to ask pointed questions about the claims made on the Real Sports episode, but, instead, Kane exploited the opportunity to propagate the sensationalized narrative he and the N&O have been steering.

To begin with, Kane could have queried Willingham about how she distinguishes between a “real degree” and one that is presumably fake. Furthermore, he could have asked how she concluded that “hundreds” of UNC athletes were denied a “real degree.” Certainly, she could not have arrived at her estimate by calculating the number of AFRI and AFAM majors among the revenue sports during her years working with athletes, from 2003 – 2010. According to media guides, the total number of football and men’s basketball players who majored in AFRI or AFAM during those seven years was 49. At that rate, if we understand “hundreds” to mean more than 200, we would have to extend the time frame back more than 28 years to reach hundreds of revenue athletes majoring in AFRI or AFAM. Twenty-eight years ago was well before Julius Nyang’oro started teaching at UNC.

Clearly, Willingham’s estimate that hundreds of athletes were denied a “real degree” was not based on any numbers publicly available. Unfortunately, however, because Kane failed to exhibit even the slightest spark of investigative curiosity when he wrote his little report about the Real Sports episode, we do not have any explanation of Willingham’s claim, and we may never know whether she has any actual quantitative evidence to support it.

Kane also failed to exhibit any interest in following up with the two former UNC football players featured in the Real Sports episode. Specifically, Kane could have asked McAdoo why he again alleged that academic counselors compelled him to major in AFAM, though his major was actually EXSS. Likewise, Kane could have asked Bryon Bishop, the other former UNC player featured in the Real Sports episode, to clarify his similar allegation. Bishop alleged that academic counselors enrolled him as an AFAM major soon after he began college at UNC. However, as the media guides indicate, Bishop’s major was initially undeclared his freshmen year, and he changed it each year thereafter. For his sophomore year, he declared Communications (COMM) his major, and for his junior year, both AFAM and COMM. For his senior year, he again declared COMM his single major, but alumni records do indicate he switched to AFAM to finish his degree. Yet Kane never bothered asking Bishop to explain why he alleged being immediately compelled to major in AFAM, though he actually changed his major throughout his college career.

The numbers and percentages of revenue athletes majoring in AFRI or AFAM during any given year casts even further doubt on Willingham’s, McAdoo’s, and Bishop’s claim that athletes were “steered” to those majors. During the same seven-year period that Willingham worked with athletes, the number of football players who were majoring in AFRI or AFAM exceeded 10 only one year. Moreover, the percentage of football players majoring in AFRI or AFAM never exceeded 13%, which is significantly short of the 25% threshold to be considered major clustering. Among the men’s basketball teams during Willingham’s seven years working with athletes, the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 teams were the only ones to have more than two players majoring in AFRI or AFAM, and the 2004-2005 team was the only one to meet the 25% threshold for major clustering. The numbers clearly do not support the claim that athletes were "steered" to the AFRI and AFAM majors. (Click here for a listing of the athletes majoring in AFRI or AFAM each year.)

As an investigative reporter staking his career on the UNC scandal, Kane should know the facts, and he should have followed up with Willingham, McAdoo, and Bishop to question their claims. If nothing else, he should have highlighted Goldberg’s failure to facilitate anything resembling a thorough investigative interview, especially considering Kane’s criticism of Bilas’s interview three months later. Instead, Kane did nothing more than complacently summarize the Real Sports episode.

When we scrutinize Willingham’s claims about academic counselors’ “steering” athletes who were denied a “real education,” and when we recognize the discrepancies between the two former football players’ allegations and the facts, we see that Kane and other journalists made no effort at verification and utterly failed to solicit and provide sufficient details and rich explanations. Rather ironically, Kane and other journalists have steered the narrative to sensationalism far more egregiously than academic counselors ever steered football players to “paper classes.”

Where are the investigative reporters who will live up to the standards Kane so clearly articulated? Obviously, they are not at the N&O.

Click here to read Part 3: The Martin Report.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Doc Kennedy for his assistance reviewing media guides.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Steering the Narrative (Part 1): Mary Willingham's Original and Contradicting Claims

The NCAA’s decision to reopen the UNC case should not surprise anyone. Previous investigations into the academics scandal were only as thorough as they could be without the testimonies of Julius Nyang’oro and Debbie Crowder. (Nyang’oro was the professor who, for well over a decade, conducted hundreds of African Studies [AFRI] and Afro-American Studies [AFAM] lecture classes as independent studies, commonly known as “paper classes,” and graded them very leniently. Crowder was his office manager.) Nyang’oro’s and Crowder’s recent cooperation with the Wainstein investigation gives the NCAA justifiable cause to inquire whether Wainstein has uncovered any new information indicating whether UNC committed NCAA infractions hitherto unknown. Truth-seekers should welcome Wainstein’s findings and the NCAA’s inquiry alike.

The N&O’s swift coverage of the NCAA’s decision on June 30 should not have surprised anyone, either. Within hours of the announcement, Raleigh’s award-winning tabloid published both a news report and an editorial. Sports columnist Luke DeCock wrote the editorial, and, like all his previous pronouncements on the UNC scandal, it reveals how incapable he is of comprehending the nuances of issues outside sports. Specifically, he has consistently dismissed the Martin Report (the most extensive investigation to date) without actually demonstrating any familiarity with its findings. The N&O would serve readers better by restricting DeCock’s editorializing to topics he is more capable of understanding, like the Hurricanes’ draft picks and NC State recruiting.

Also not surprising on June 30 was Jay Smith's appearance in the N&O's news report about the NCAA's decision. Smith is the UNC professor who has been the most outspoken, cantankerous critic of UNC. He loves to read his name in the paper, and the N&O loves to print it. In fact, the N&O loves printing Smith’s name so much they quote Smith even when Smith’s expertise as a French historian bears no relevance to the story.

For example, on June 24, Dan Kane published an article about Nyang’oro’s criminal charge potentially being dropped following his cooperation in the Wainstein investigation. (The charge was eventually dropped, on July 3.) Many readers likely wondered whether a precedent exists for dropping a criminal charge under such circumstances. An attentive journalist, therefore, would have found a legal expert—or three, as did the DTH—to answer some questions about the case. Fortunately, among the Duke, NCCU, and UNC law schools, finding legal experts in the Triangle area is exceptionally easy. Unfortunately, instead of interviewing a legal expert, Kane interviewed Smith, an expert on imaginary, 18th-century French monsters. Alas, Smith’s frivolous appearance in the article illuminates more about the cozy relationship between him and Kane than about the facts of the story.

Yet Kane would like readers to believe he is just doing his job. In a recent interview with WCHL, he insisted, “I’m trying to go where the facts lead.” Earlier in the interview, when responding to a question about Roy Williams’s interview with Jay Bilas on ESPN, Kane audaciously insinuated Bilas was not qualified to conduct the interview sufficiently. Kane stated,

I would have liked for somebody who’s spent a lot of time in journalism, doing investigative reporting, handling that interview, just because, investigative reporters, they tend to focus on the details, have people walk through the process, and tend to get a richer explanation as to what happened.

The implication, of course, is that Kane, an investigative reporter himself, would have focused on more details and solicited a richer explanation than Bilas accomplished. Obviously, ESPN should have had Kane, not Bilas, conduct the interview.

Facts, details, and rich explanations should indeed be the accepted standards for quality investigative journalism, and we should thank Kane for articulating those standards so clearly. One could send him a thank you note, but I want to express my gratitude more thoroughly. I can think of no better way of thanking him than to evaluate his own reporting (on the UNC scandal) against the standards he himself has articulated for such reporting. Has Kane followed all the relevant facts? Has he solicited and provided sufficient details for readers to develop a comprehensive understanding of his sources’ claims? Has he solicited and provided rich explanations of the experiences and situations his sources have recalled?

As I will demonstrate in this four-part essay, the answer to each of those questions is no. Indeed, rather than report verified facts, relevant details, and rich explanations, Kane, with the help of his boss and colleagues, has relentlessly steered the narrative to sensationalism. In this four-part essay, I highlight four narrative aspects about which Kane and other N&O writers have not followed the facts, not solicited or provided sufficient details, and not solicited or provided rich explanations from sources. In short, beginning with Kane's reporting on Mary Willingham's original and contradicting claims, I will demonstrate that Kane and the N&O have not lived up to the standards Kane himself has articulated.

(Lest one think Kane is the only journalist to have steered an ostensible college athletics scandal to sensationalism, consider the recent Sports Illustrated journalists who inaccurately reported on the Oklahoma State scandal.)

Tolerating Cheating?

Recently, a journalist informed me he had acquired some interesting information related to the UNC scandal, but he has refrained from publishing the information because he has no way of verifying it. That journalist’s commitment to verification—a principle that should be the defining standard of journalism—merits our applause. Had Kane demonstrated such professionalism when handling Mary Willingham’s claims, the narrative of the UNC scandal would have likely been told with more accuracy and less sensationalism.

Willingham first seized the media’s attention on November 17, 2012, when the N&O headline read, “UNC tolerated cheating, says insider Mary Willingham.” Of course, Kane wrote the article. In it, he reports several vague claims Willingham made, and then, after the damage is done, he quickly acknowledges none of her claims could be verified. Kane writes, “Willingham provided no records to support her claims and would not identify specific athletes for fear that would violate the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA.” He then hastily moves on to a complaint about UNC’s regularly citing FERPA, and then he concludes the article with some melodramatic quotes from Willingham. Over a year and a half later, Willingham’s original, unverified claims are particularly interesting in light of developments since then and in light of Kane’s own standards for investigative reporters.

Kane begins the article from November 2012,

As a reading specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham met athletes who told her they had never read a book and didn’t know what a paragraph was. She said she saw diagnostic tests that showed they were unable to do college-level work.

But many of those athletes stayed eligible to play sports, she said, because the academic support system provided improper help and tolerated plagiarism. When she raised questions or made an objection to what she saw as cheating, she said, she saw no one take her concerns seriously.

A few paragraphs later, Kane reports some details about an instance of suspected plagiarism allegedly tolerated by staff members, yet the explanation Willingham provided remains far from rich. Kane writes,

Willingham learned of [the ‘paper classes’] when she was asked to work with a female athlete on a paper. Willingham said the paper was a ‘cut-and-paste’ job, but when she raised questions about it, staff members told her not to worry. The student later received a grade of B or better.

That is it. Seriously, that is all Kane writes about the incident. Is that supposed to be a rich explanation?

Unfortunately, Willingham’s unverified and vague recollection of the circumstances surrounding that paper, as reported by Kane, leaves careful readers with too many unanswered questions to develop a comprehensive understanding of the situation. What exactly did Willingham mean when she referred to the paper as a “‘cut-and-paste’ job”? As a learning specialist, was she not responsible for helping such students develop their writing skills beyond “cut-and-paste”? Did she, therefore, help the student improve the paper before the student submitted the final draft? How many times did she meet with the student? Was the student receptive to Willingham’s teaching? Did the student correct what Willingham may have perceived to be plagiarism? How did the final draft compare to the original draft? Was Willingham concerned primarily because she believed the student’s final draft was willfully plagiarized, or was she concerned primarily because she was doubtful of her abilities to continue providing effective academic support to such students?

Furthermore, Kane writes only that Willingham “raised questions” about the paper. Well, what questions did she raise? What exactly did she report to staff members? Did she report resistance from the student? Did she report a concern that the student submitted a willfully plagiarized paper? Did she provide staff members with copies of the paper to demonstrate her concerns? How exactly did they respond? Did the staff members blatantly dismiss direct evidence of plagiarism, or could they have told her not to worry simply because she was new to the job and her concerns were the typical concerns of a new learning specialist?

Years after Willingham’s encounter with the “cut-and-paste” paper, she encountered another paper that similarly concerned her. Yet Willingham’s recollection of the circumstances surrounding the second paper, as reported by Kane, is as unverified and vague as the first set of circumstances. Such ambiguity from an investigative reporter is vexing on its own, but even more so when following a headline like, “UNC tolerated cheating, says insider Mary Willingham.” Given such a damning accusation, readers may expect verified, detailed accounts of widespread cheating among athletes, but instead we discover the headline is based on nothing more than two unverified, vague anecdotes separated by years.

Hundreds of Writing Samples?

Of course, developments since then raise more questions that Kane has never seemed to ask despite his ongoing reliance on Willingham for sensational claims. For example, those following the media’s narrative on the UNC scandal well remember the infamous Rosa Parks paper that Willingham claimed earned a student an A-. Jordan Weissman, writing for Slate, provided clarification on the circumstances of the paper, after the ESPN story went viral. Weismann writes,

Willingham told me that ESPN had asked her to show them some of the hundreds of writing samples she keeps on file from the athletes she worked with at UNC; she retrieved a pile of them. The Rosa Parks essay, which happened to be on top, was just one typical example of what students regularly showed her.

That story was April of this year, nearly 18 months after Kane’s original story featuring Willingham. Remember that the central anecdote of Kane’s story was about a “cut-and-paste” paper Willingham encountered early in her career working with athletes. Remember also that she provided no records to verify her claims. Yet nearly 18 months later, she claimed to have hundreds of writing samples demonstrating the very “cut-and-paste” writing she previously would not verify. Where were those hundreds of samples in November 2012? Why would she not have provided some of them to Kane? Did she previously deny having those samples? Can she demonstrate the samples are authentic and not fabricated texts she composed to attract more media attention?

Those questions would be highly relevant for a follow-up to the ESPN segment, and Kane did write an article about it, but he did not report answers to any of those questions. In fact, he made no original contributions to the story at all: his article is nothing more than a rehashing of the ESPN segment (and of an HBO Real Sports episode that aired the same day.) It was perhaps his most pathetic article to date, entirely devoid of new details. It was not what we would expect from an investigative reporter just doing his job.

What Did They Know?

In his original story on Willingham, Kane also states the following:

In a series of interviews with The News & Observer, she said there were numerous people in the academic support program who knew that what was going on was wrong, but they looked the other way, helping to protect one of the nation’s most storied athletic programs.

For that claim, forget a rich explanation from Willingham: Kane does not even bother soliciting any explanation. Thus, we are left with multiple questions. What did the numerous members of the academic support staff know was wrong? How did Willingham know those staff members knew what was going on was wrong? Did she hear numerous staff members admit to excusing wrongdoing for the sake of athletics? Did she ever confront any of those numerous staff members about looking the other way? If so, how did they respond? Could Willingham be projecting false memories onto the narrative in order to exonerate herself from wrongdoing, to make herself feel important, and/or to attract attention?

Furthermore, Willingham’s allegation regarding numerous staff members in the academic support program directly contradicts her statements to one of those staff members in an email sent about a year later. The excerpt below comes from an email Willingham sent to a former academic support staff member in September 2013:

I never doubted you or that you helped students enormously and selflessly loved them and Carolina. The story of how our UNC athletic system worked/had to work and the dedicated people behind the scenes is nothing short of amazing. You played a role in it and you should be proud - our students (and staff) loved you --because [. . .] you are real. The collegiate sport system (profit sport model) is messed up, not the people (well, maybe some of those guys in Indianapolis).

When making vague allegations devoid of details but sure to generate headlines, Willingham claims the academic support program accepted wrongdoing for the sake of athletics. However, when addressing members of the academic support program personally, she calls them dedicated educators whose work was “nothing short of amazing.” (By the way, the UNC Board of Governors later affirmed the academic support program’s blamelessness.) An investigative reporter committed to soliciting rich explanations would have likely discerned Willingham’s propensity for self-contradiction early in the interviewing process. For Kane, however, ambiguity allows for conjecture and insinuation, the methods by which the N&O steers its narrative.

To avoid "paper classes," or not to avoid? That is the question.

Another one of Willingham’s original claims that she later contradicts without Kane’s notice is in regard to the athletes with whom she worked. Kane writes,

Willingham said after her early experience with the female athlete’s [cut-and-paste] paper, she avoided the African studies papers by spending most of her time working with athletes in the nonrevenue sports, and by helping students with introductory English classes. But the issue arose again in 2008, she said, when she was asked to look at a history paper for a football player.

Willingham began her job as a learning specialist for athletes in October 2003. If she encountered the “cut-and-paste” paper early in her experience and then spent little time working with football and basketball players until sometime in 2008, as Kane reports, we can reasonably infer she had little contact with football and basketball players between 2003 and 2008. Yet she has been arguing the opposite for the past six months.

Since Willingham’s so-called “research” on UNC athletes’ reading levels was discredited, first by the Provost and then by three external reviewers, Willingham has insisted her assessment was based in part on her personal experience with the athletes in the study. Her study’s sample consisted of first-year athletes from 2005 until 2012, most of whom were football and men’s basketball players. “I worked with the overwhelming majority of the students in the data set,” Willingham has asserted.

However, Willingham stopped working with athletes in January 2010, which means she would not have worked with any of the first-year athletes from 2010, 2011, and 2012. Furthermore, if, as she claimed to Kane for his original story on her, Willingham mostly avoided working with football and men’s basketball players prior to 2008, then she would have only had extensive contact with at most two (2008 and 2009) of the cohorts of first-year football and men’s basketball players before her departure from the academic support program. That means she would have only worked closely with two of the eight cohorts of football and men’s basketball players in her study. Therefore, the history of her experience as a learning specialist for athletes does not align with her claims the past six months, yet neither Kane nor any of the other journalists who have recently reported on her have solicited a rich explanation for that discrepancy.

Forgetting FERPA

In addition to the aforementioned claims by Willingham in Kane’s original, November 2012 story on her, she also claimed that men’s basketball players commonly enrolled in the substandard AFRI and AFAM classes until a new academic counselor stopped them from doing so in Fall 2009. Remember, however, that Willingham did not provide any records to verify her claims. Remember also that her reason for not providing any records was because she did not want to violate FERPA. Now, flash forward to last month, when Kane reported on data Willingham recently provided to him, allegedly demonstrating that five members of the 2005 national championship team enrolled in a combined 51 “paper classes” and independent studies. In other words, the data she recently provided Kane was exactly the kind of data that would have verified at least one of her claims in November 2012 but which she did not provide then because she did not want to violate FERPA.

Careful readers are left with lingering questions. Why was Willingham concerned about FERPA in November 2012 but not this year? Did she have that data in November 2012? If so, why did she not provide it to Kane then? If not, when did she access and collect that data? How did she access it? With whom? Does she believe her accessing that data violated FERPA? Has she obtained and/or maintained other protected academic records since she stopped working with athletes and since she left the university? Does she believe she has ever violated FERPA? Did the university Registrar ever summon her to account for potential FERPA violations since she published her “research” findings with CNN?

The answers to those questions would certainly provide readers with relevant details for understanding the situation. Of course, the answers may also be damning for Willingham, which would impede Kane’s efforts to exploit her for the narrative he and the N&O have been steering.

To avoid, or not to avoid? Still asking.

Still another discrepancy exists between Kane’s original story on Willingham and his recent story about the 2005 basketball team. In his recent story, Kane explains that Willingham identified several “paper classes” that had not previously been identified as such:

A review of Willingham’s data shows that she is including several classes that were not identified in previous investigations as no-show classes. She said she counted them because she did not recall athletes having to attend the class to obtain credit.

However, in November 2012, Kane writes,

Willingham said after her early experience with the female athlete’s [cut-and-paste] paper, she avoided the African studies papers by spending most of her time working with athletes in the nonrevenue sports, and by helping students with introductory English classes. But the issue arose again in 2008, she said, when she was asked to look at a history paper for a football player.

If, as Willingham claimed in November 2012, she started avoiding the “African studies papers” soon after she began working as a learning specialist in October 2003, how does she now so clearly remember the African studies classes in which members of the 2005 team were enrolled? Did she, or did she not, work closely with football and men’s basketball players between 2003 and 2008? From her conflicting accounts, we cannot tell. Again, the history of Willingham’s experience as a learning specialist for athletes, as she originally claimed, does not align with her recent claims, yet neither Kane nor any of the other journalists who have recently reported on her have solicited a rich explanation for that discrepancy.

An Imagined Conversation

Before I conclude the first part of this essay, one more, critical point remains about Kane’s reporting in his original story on Willingham. Again, early in his November 2012 article, Kane reports Willingham’s claim that men’s basketball players enrolled in the substandard AFRI and AFAM classes until a new academic counselor stopped them from doing so in Fall 2009. Later in the article, he provides more details:

Last month, The N&O questioned men’s basketball coach Roy Williams as to why his players stopped enrolling in no-show classes by the fall of 2009. Williams offered no explanation other than a suggestion that players may have decided on their own not to take them.

Willingham said a new academic counselor assigned to the team in summer 2009 told her she would not enroll the players in the no-show classes. “She said, ‘I didn’t come here ... to do this. Everything has to be on the up and up,’ ” Willingham recalled.

In uncharacteristic fashion, Willingham actually portrays another academic support staff member as upright. However, there is one major problem with that anecdote: the conversation between Willingham and the new academic counselor never happened. The counselor tells me she never once discussed "paper classes" with Willingham.

That's right: Willingham imagined that conversation.

Of course, Willingham is to blame for fabricating the anecdote, but Kane is more to blame for including it in the article. He printed a secondhand quote that he never verified. I may not be an expert on the journalism profession, as Andrew Carter recently pointed out, but, as a reader, I expect better than unverified, secondhand quotes from investigative reporters. All readers should expect better.

For some time, I was perplexed over the inclusion of that anecdote in Kane’s story. Why would he highlight a single academic counselor’s seemingly virtuous conduct? How did it contribute to the story? Although the answer should have been evident to me sooner, it did not become apparent until I watched the documentary Schooled, which features an interview with Kane about the UNC scandal. In the film (which, outside its slanted depiction of the UNC scandal, is well-executed and advances an important argument), Kane repeats Willingham’s fabricated anecdote about the new basketball counselor. This time, though, his framing of the anecdote more clearly reveals his motive for highlighting it in the first place. Kane contends,

What’s really interesting is that the Carolina basketball team that won the national championship in 2005, that team alone, had 15 “paper class” enrollments that year. In the summer of 2009, the basketball team changed academic counselors, and that new counselor comes in and says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that. I want to do things right.” And from there on out, the basketball team is out of these classes.

By lauding one counselor who allegedly identified wrongdoing and deliberately chose “to do things right,” Kane strategically insinuates that all other counselors, including the counselor for the 2005 and 2009 national championship teams, deliberately chose to do wrong. With just a subtle insinuation—based on a secondhand, unverified quote imagined by Willingham—Kane has steered the narrative to becoming the sensationalized athletics scandal for which the N&O wants so desperately to win a Pulitzer.

Kane criticized Jay Bilas for not soliciting sufficient details and rich explanations from Roy Williams and the accompanying former UNC basketball players, yet Kane’s reporting on Willingham, from the very beginning, has been no less bereft of sufficient details and rich explanations—while also being propelled by secondhand, unverified quotes. The remaining three parts of this essay cover three additional narrative aspects about which Kane has failed to comply with his own standards of investigative reporting, Though the remaining issues are not as extensive as the first, they are nonetheless disconcerting and further demonstrate the methods by which Kane and the N&O (and other journalists) have steered the narrative to sensationalism.

Click here to read Part 2: Mary Willingham's and Michael McAdoo's Overlapping Claims.

Monday, July 14, 2014

My Experience as a UNC Student-Athlete: A (Not So) Different Perspective

In this essay, guest author and former UNC golfer Bob Cherry recalls his academic experience as a student-athlete who took one of the infamous "paper classes" and earned a real education nonetheless. In fact, Bob Cherry is now Dr. Cherry, a practicing dentist in Wilmington, NC. Although his perspective on the academic experience of UNC student-athletes is different from what the media has presented, he believes it is not so different from what the vast majority of UNC student-athletes believe. 

My name is Bob Cherry, and I am a Tar Heel.

Though I was reluctant to sound cliché and start my essay that way, I feel that statement—“I am a Tar Heel”—can still be a rally cry, of sorts, for people who love UNC like I do. Those of us who have been to the Dean Dome or Kenan Stadium over the past few years have seen the videos of famous UNC athletes making that simple statement, affirming their Tar Heel identity, and so I felt compelled to follow their lead. This essay is my way of affirming my identity as a Tar Heel and offering a different and, in my opinion, more complete side of the UNC athlete’s story than the one being rehashed in the media.