Monday, October 20, 2014

Mary Willingham's "Literacy before Legacy" Campaign

Today Mary Willingham launched "Literacy before Legacy," a campaign to raise $120,000 to establish a literacy program for middle school and high school athletes. Furthermore, she hopes to begin the program in January 2015, less than three months from now, though she has offered no details on how the program would be structured or who would be part of her "team of experts."

What qualifies Willingham to direct such a program?

First, as the feature subject of a CNN story in January, Willingham reported grossly inflated statistics on the reading levels of the college athletes she studied at UNC. Although she claimed that approximately 70% of her sample read below a high school level, three experts independently verified that her data were insufficient to make such a claim. In actuality, less than 7% of her sample scored below a high school level on a vocabulary assessment, and Willingham apparently employed unsound methods to arrive at her findings.

Second, Willingham publicly misrepresented the purpose of her study and violated basic research ethics when she conducted the study. Although she claimed she had informed the IRB that she would be collecting primary data, her research application revealed otherwise. Moreover, during the last three years of her study, she no longer worked with the college athletes she was studying, and so she had no right to access their federally protected educational and health information without their consent. Yet access that information she did, and she even tweeted about it in April:

Third, Willingham plagiarized parts of her master's thesis. Ironically, she wrote her thesis during the same time she claims to have become concerned about the "cut-and-paste" papers athletes were writing at UNC. Of course, she was also supposed to be helping those athletes learn how to summarize, paraphrase, and quote with proper attributions. Apparently, she herself needed tutoring in proper citation practices.

In summary: Willingham is qualified to direct a literacy program for athletes because she (1) lacks sufficient knowledge of educational assessment but presents herself to national media outlets as an expert, (2) violates basic research ethics regarding subjects' privacy, and (3) foregoes or overlooks citation standards when attempting to compose scholarly texts.

Considering her qualifications, I am sure she will exceed her goal of $120,000. I would love to contribute, but, unfortunately, I am broke. The payments Pack Pride alleges I am receiving from UNC's PR department have not come in yet. Maybe after the Wainstein Report.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Perils of Publicity, Indeed

One way or another, Jay Smith wants to get me. In April, he notified the Provost that I appeared mentally unstable. Today, Smith accused me of plagiarizing him.

In my latest essay, I titled one of the sections, "The Perils of Publicity." Originally, I titled it, "The Hazards of Publicity," but I later revised it when I realized I could make it more alliterative by substituting the word perils for hazards. The source of the idea was nothing more than my internal thesaurus.

Pack Pride's faux professor and pseudo-intellectual, Professor Wolf, first accused me of plagiarism when he noted that "The Perils of Publicity" is the title of Chapter 5 in Smith's latest book.

I included Smith in the conversation because I naively believed that even he, despite his past intellectual dishonesty, would acknowledge that Professor Wolf was being petty. Unfortunately, Smith's bitterness against all who are associated with UNC athletics seems to be without limit.

There it is in Smith's last tweet: an outright accusation of plagiarism for my articulating a phrase that has been used countless times and is at least as old as a March 1927 issue of The Marine Corps Gazette.

Jay Smith is an illustration of why many outside academia question the tenure system.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Education of Bradley Bethel: On the Challenges of Speaking Truth in a Media-Saturated World

"A writer not writing is practically a maniac within himself." — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Just over seven months ago, on February 24, after an anxious weekend of writing and editing, I published "Truth and Literacy at UNC," my first essay challenging Mary Willingham's false claims and subverting the media's sensationalized narrative. When I decided to write that essay, I expected it would be my only contribution to the public debate over the UNC scandal. My original intention was merely to demonstrate the arrant flaws in Willingham's claims, and I naively hoped my essay would provide responsible journalists with enough material to investigate the issues further. With the exception of WCHL's News and Sports Director, Ran Northam, however, the media was uninterested in objectively considering challenges to an ostensible whistleblower's claims. Therefore, I continued offering my perspective through my blog, conducting my own investigation and writing about the ways the media has distorted the truth. After thirty-two more blog entries and six radio interviews, we can unequivocally say my expectation for a brief foray into the public debate was mistaken.

My engagement in the controversies over the UNC scandal has not surprised my family and friends. As early as ninth grade, my self-identity as an engaged citizen and critical thinker began to take shape in my English class, when my teacher, Mr. Rabb, helped me realize my potential to command words and ideas powerfully. Throughout high school and college, my teachers consistently praised my writing and encouraged me to continue cultivating my rhetorical abilities. Much of my recreational time since then has been spent immersed in reading and writing, but before February I had written little for large audiences. When I decided to publish my first essay challenging Willingham's claims, I did so because I was exasperated by the media's recklessness, and because I realized I may be uniquely qualified to challenge the media's narrative and articulate a more factual counter-narrative.

My writing since then has been therapeutic. For two and a half years before I published "Truth and Literacy," I was increasingly frustrated by the way the N&O's tabloid journalism diminished the reputations of my colleagues who were part of the Academic Support Program and Athletics department during the years Julius Nyang'oro conducted his infamous "paper classes." While I remained publicly reticent, waiting in vain for an administrator from Arts & Sciences to show some courage, the vexation I felt intensified. Conversely, when I began writing, I felt unburdened. That is why Jay Smith's accusation that I appeared mentally unstable when I published my essay "Silent Dishonesty" was rather ironic. In actuality, my publishing that essay was a cathartic act of mental clarity, and my continued writing has been a healthy expression of my character and personality.

NWA - Express Yourself (1988) from Golden Era Videos on Vimeo.

Confronting Confirmation Bias

For two years prior to my blogging about the UNC scandal, I occasionally engaged in debate with Gerald Gurney, a misanthropic commentator on college athletics and current president of The Drake Group. Gurney previously supervised Academic Services for student-athletes at Oklahoma University, and he is a former president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A), of which I am also a member. Although the N4A Code of Ethics (Article I: Section 4) states, "The member should not seek self-enhancement through the public critique of other members," Gurney has been quoted on several occasions unabashedly vilifying UNC athletics or the academic support program. For example, in one N&O article, he described the UNC scandal as a "classic pattern of an endemic problem in academic support." Gurney shamelessly made his proclamations without ever speaking with current or former UNC academic counselors, who are fellow N4A members.

Blinded by confirmation bias, Gurney has willingly been misled by yellow journalists. Over the past four years, he has consistently posted articles about the UNC scandal to the N4A listerv. I first engaged in debate on that listserv after Gurney posted an article by the New York Times hack columnist Joe Nocera, in April 2012. In his column, "Swahili and Football," Nocera quoted former UNC football player Deunta Williams saying, "All the freshman football players take Swahili as their language requirement." That "Swahili story" was the primary evidence supporting Nocera's thesis: "With their phony majors and low expectations, [universities] send the unmistakable message to the athletes that they don’t care what happens after their eligibility expires." The problem is that Nocera did not verify Williams's claim. Consequently, a few days later the NY Times was compelled to add a correction to the online column, explaining that only seven of 25 football student-athletes in Williams's freshmen class actually took Swahili. Moreover, in a WRAL interview earlier this year, Williams acknowledged that Nocera misquoted him. The quote from Williams remains in Nocera's column nonetheless.

Yet the "Swahili story" was not the only problem with Nocera's article, as I highlighted in my response on the N4A listserv:

Once upon a time, so I've heard, journalists had standards. Before reporting on a particular phenomenon, they felt professionally obligated to thoroughly investigate it. Anecdotal evidence wasn't enough for these fact-finders. Unfortunately, those journalists are a thing of the past, something my generation has only heard about. 
Joe Nocera reports that UNC professors receive a letter from the Athletics Department, asking "in effect, to go easy on [athletes]." He neither provides the specific text from this alleged letter nor does he indicate any attempt to inquire the Athletics Department about it. He simply reports hearsay.

After I read the article, I reviewed all our correspondence with professors, looking for anything that could be interpreted as asking them to go easy on student-athletes. I found nothing. Unless my department is secretly sending letters unbeknownst to the academic staff, the alleged letter to which Nocera refers is nothing more than the fancy of some disgruntled, anti-athletics faculty member.

Those of us working in academic support no doubt have our own critiques of college athletics. Unfortunately, when journalists like Nocera distort the truth and publish sensationalist criticism disconnected from reality, the reasoned critiques of those with first-hand knowledge are rarely heard.

Gurney continued to post articles about the UNC scandal, and as a result he and I engaged in some heated debate through both the listserv and email during the two years following the Nocera column. After Willingham became a CNN and BusinessWeek celebrity early this year, Gurney posted several articles featuring her claims. Irritated by his seemingly gleeful touting of the defamation against UNC, I posted the following on January 21:

N4A Colleagues, 
For those following the news regarding claims about the literacy levels of UNC student-athletes, please see the following article: 
In short, UNC Provost Jim Dean summarily disproved the claims. From the article: 
“The test Willingham used to diagnose reading skill, called the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults, was a 10-minute reading vocabulary test that is not recommended alone to judge overall literacy, Dean said. And, he added, Willingham apparently misinterpreted the results of the data by presenting standard scores as grade equivalents, rendering her conclusions ‘virtually meaningless.’ 
“He showed a blank exam as an example. Each question had four words, and the test-taker has to decide whether some of the words are synonyms, antonyms or unrelated. There were no reading comprehension passages. 
“Dean said he and three others, including the head of the university’s academic support program for athletes, collectively spent more than 200 hours analyzing Willingham’s data this week. The university will also have the data and Willingham’s methodology independently evaluated.”

Gurney retorted that Willingham's claims had not actually been disproved and that she had yet to respond.

Although I declined to comment further that day, three days later Gurney posted another article about the UNC scandal, to which I responded as follows:

N4A Colleagues, 
I am sure Dr. Gurney simply forgot to include the link below, and so I am sending it for those of you following the recent reports concerning UNC student-athletes. For those of you not following, I apologize.

The link below is a statement from the Director of Human Research Ethics at UNC. In it, he corrects some of the false claims being repeated in the media. 
Many of you may recall from your college "Introduction to Psychology" course the concept of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to find and believe claims that confirm the beliefs they already hold, even when those claims are dubious. For example, if one passionately believes that intercollegiate athletics is a corrupt business, he or she is, subsequently, likely to believe any claims that appear to support that position, regardless of the soundness of those claims. 
Such confirmation bias has underscored much of the reporting and discussion on the recent claims concerning UNC student-athletes.

Of course, as humans, we are all, at times, guilty of confirmation bias. However, I trust, as educators for student-athletes, we will interrogate our own biases and the biases of others in order to provide our students with meaningful and effective academic support. The one personal bias I cannot disavow is the belief that no one cares more about student-athlete success and well-being than the current academic support professionals reading this message. Your daily service to student-athletes accomplishes more, I believe, than any sensationalized public campaign ever will. Thank you for not only your service to students but also for the collegiality and encouragement you have displayed in your service to this professional community.

After a learning specialist from another university sent me a supportive message expressing similar frustration with Gurney, I responded to her on January 26, and my response reflects my increasing feeling of disillusionment with the media, which eventually compelled me to begin blogging:

Thanks so much for your response to the conversation. Gurney is blinded by his own bias, and I've had enough of it. The past three weeks have been surreal. The way the events have unfolded has affected my entire worldview. I was already critical of the media, but now I have absolutely no trust in anything a corporate-backed media outlet reports. I will not believe anything reported in a newspaper or on a news channel, because I have seen over the past three weeks how the media completely ignores facts in order to create a sensational story. I'm talking facts, not opinions. Mary Willingham's claims were factually inaccurate. There's actually no debate to be had. She reported vocabulary scores as grade-level equivalents [for reading comprehension]. She didn’t follow the directions of the assessment. Furthermore, she never had the approval to conduct the "research" anyway, yet the media has reported that her approval was rescinded. She is made out to be a hero, but she is really just a delusional, failed educator who has become drunk with self-aggrandizement. People are going to remember her positively, and that makes me sick. It makes me wonder how many other cultural heroes and role models were frauds and how much of what we think we know was based on the distorted reporting of the media.

Paul Barrett's Beguiling Reporting

Gurney (along with his friend David Ridpath) was all too eager to compile evidence of an athletics scandal at UNC, and the abundance of sensationalized reporting has provided him with much purported evidence to tout. BusinessWeek's Paul Barrett has been the chief yellow journalist among the several who have covered the UNC scandal. Over the course of multiple columns he published during January and February, he consistently demonstrated an outright abandonment of journalistic standards, propagating unverified claims as if they were facts and disguising his melodramatic interpretations as objective conclusions. Barrett's writing about UNC has been nothing less than a sustained exhibition of journalistic misconduct, providing misanthropes and rival fans with much substance for their condemnation.

For example, Barrett asserted that "the university’s administration has persisted in demonizing a campus tutor named Mary Willingham," and he condemned the university for "orchestrating the campus version of a public flogging." As my latest blog entry reveals, however, the opposite was true. Multiple times campus leaders attempted to cooperate with Willingham to examine her claims, but, because campus leaders did not accept her claims without question, she resisted for months. Then, after Willingham finally cooperated, an internal investigation revealed her claims were based on gross misinterpretations of the data. Moreover, Provost Jim Dean's presentation of the analysis was focused exclusively on Willingham's claims, not, as Barrett suggests, on Willingham's character. She was neither "demonized" nor "flogged," in any honest sense of those words, by any campus administrator, and Barrett's brazenfaced trumpeting of such flagrantly sensationalized allegations was bewildering. BusinessWeek, I thought, was a credible publication, but Barrett consistently violated every standard of what journalism scholars Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call the "discipline of verification":

  1. Never add anything that was not there.
  2. Never deceive the audience.
  3. Be transparent about your methods and motives.
  4. Rely on your own original reporting.
  5. Exercise humility.

How could such a reckless journalist maintain a position as a senior writer at a publication as respected as BusinessWeek? Apparently, like many other national media outlets, the Bloomberg-owned publication espouses an editorial philosophy whereby what sells is more important than what is true. Although I was skeptical of the media prior to the UNC scandal, the reality of journalistic misconduct had never been so palpable before reading Barrett's columns.

The Perils of Publicity 

Notwithstanding my scorn for Barrett and my overall frustration with the media, I may have never felt compelled to write "Truth and Literacy" had Dan Kane not quoted me in an online sidebar of an article he wrote about retired UNC faculty member and administrator Madeline Levine. The sidebar was about an email I sent to the Chancellor, in which I expressed my belief that admissions for athletes needed to be improved. Although I did not feel Kane manipulated my words on that occasion, I was not comfortable allowing a single email to represent my perspective on UNC athletics. Thus, the factor that ultimately exhausted my reticence was the presence of my name and words in that sidebar. Seeing my name and words there, I knew I could no longer remain publicly reticent.

Soon after Kane's January 30 article, I began writing. After I had composed a 2,000-word draft and had it reviewed by several trusted friends and colleagues, I contacted two publications to inquire whether they would be interested in publishing it. Both were interested, but only if I limited it to fewer than 1,500 words. Although I have cut significant portions of writing projects in the past, I believed that any reduction in the content of that essay would subtract from the nuance I was attempting to provide. Hence, I decided to publish on my blog. Relieved of the pressure to maintain brevity, I composed another 1,000 words and then released the final draft to the blogosphere on February 24.

As I explained above, I originally aspired only to refute Willingham's false claims, and I hoped "Truth and Literacy" would be seen by enough people that eventually it would reach a responsible investigative journalist who would further investigate the issues I raised. Never did I expect my essay would be viewed by thousands within the first day. The encouragement and support I received from alumni readers soon thereafter and in the months since then has been inspiring. My blogging has created unexpected opportunities to meet many good people who are part of the greater UNC community, and my faith in UNC, as well as my identity as a Tar Heel, has increased significantly as a result. 

Yet even more surprising has been the vitriol directed at me from a group of Pack Pride followers and other ABCers (those rooting for Anyone But Carolina). BusinessWeek's, CNN's, and the N&O's sensationalist coverage of the UNC scandal seems to rile that crowd into a frenzy every time a new article is published. When I first arrived at UNC in Fall 2011, some of my colleagues warned me about the boorishness of NC State fans, but I dismissed such disparagement as the smugness of UNC fans. However, although most State fans do not display the level of crudity my colleagues described, I have since encountered a sizable sub-population who do. Most of that vocal minority occupies the Pack Pride message boards and pathetically trolls Twitter, and the stridency and vulgarity of their clamor makes stereotyping the entire fan base difficult to resist.

Blogging on my own accord, I was not prepared for the derision I received from the ABC crowd, and the unexpected magnitude of that derision was overwhelming at first. (Contrary to the drivel spewing from the ABCers, my blogging has not been a function of the university's public relations strategy. No one from UNC prompted me to write any of my essays: my decision to begin and to continue writing has been mine alone.) A week after I published "Truth and Literacy," Kane wrote a story about me, in which, I later realized, he strategically excluded essential premises of my argument. By so doing, he made my position appear self-contradictory, and ABCers' ridicule on the internet and social media subsequently increased. The experience was unsettling.

During the first week of March, my anxiety was abnormally high, due to the conflicting emotions I was experiencing. Although the flood of attention resulting from my first essay was as disquieting as it was affirming, I began feeling compelled to write more. The satisfaction I experienced while writing "Truth and Literacy" was short-lived because publishing it spurred rumination on my potential to contribute further to the the public debate. Yet I simultaneously felt diffident about my capacity to manage further public scrutiny, especially because I would be facing it alone. To write, or not to write? That was my existential dilemma.

On the evening of March 4, I received a reproachful email from Elliot Cramer, a retired professor of Psychology who had been the faculty advisor to a xenophobic student organization at UNC. Our exchange over the next 14 hours was exasperating because, though Cramer actually possesses the expertise to evaluate Willingham's claims thoroughly, he ignored and manipulated the facts in an effort to make her claims appear sound. (You can read our exchange here.) Cramer's effrontery therefore amplified my already heightened anxiety. After noticing that I had become irritable at work, and feeling like I had become manic, I took a day off and scheduled an appointment with a therapist. I also removed my essay from my blog and decided to retreat from the public for an indefinite amount of time.

In only one session, the therapist was able to help me identify the coping strategy I clearly needed: more writing. Sometimes, an otherwise healthy individual simply needs a professional observer to point out the obvious. (However, because our society is still profoundly ignorant about mental health and illness, I must note that those suffering from severe and persistent mental illness unfortunately cannot so easily overcome their challenges. UNC faculty member Katie Guest Pryal has recently written several worthwhile columns about the ongoing challenges faced by faculty members living with psychiatric disabilities.) My problem was that the 3,000 words constituting "Truth and Literacy" was only a fraction of the inchoate prose stirring in my mind. To write, or not to write? Undeniably, the answer was to write, and afterward I could decide whether to publish.

My evenings then became filled with writing, and I started waking up as early as 4:00 AM to write more. Two and a half years' worth of internal expostulation came flooding from my pen onto my notebook. On March 10, I re-published "Truth and Literacy," and later that month I published a more concise version, reiterating my critiques of Willingham's methodology. Although I wrote much more during that time, I was still contemplating how much of it to publish.

Jay Smith's hypocrisy was the factor that finally compelled me to publish another longform essay. In a blog entry he published on March 26, he accused the university of dishonesty and obfuscation, and he restated his accusations in a follow-up blog entry two days later. Possessing evidence that Smith was withholding information about some of Willingham's false claims, I could no longer allow a distinguished professor to remain unchallenged while he so brazenly abandoned his professorial duty to seek the truth. Therefore, on April 1, I published "Silent Dishonesty," exposing Smith's betrayal of his truth-seeking obligation. When I published that essay, I was slightly anxious but otherwise composed. I knew I was henceforth committed to the public debate over the UNC scandal, and I felt the writer in me vitalized. In other words, I was not, as Smith alleged in an email to the Provost three days later, mentally unstable. On the contrary, my writing and publishing since then has been a salutary exercise in self-actualization.

The Travails of Twitter

Not surprisingly, the taunts from ABCers surged after I exposed their hero Smith, and since April whole threads on the Carolina Sucks and Pack Pride message boards have been devoted to reviling me. Although I block the browbeaters on Twitter, I occasionally check their timelines and save their most offensive tweets about me, because I began to find amusement in their absurdity and pettiness.

The two most rancorous Tweeters have been individuals maintaining the respective handles John Broward and DevilDJ32. Broward has a respectable 292 followers, but his timeline is appalling to anyone with even a minimal awareness of social issues. His regular tweets lambasting the "liberal" media's treatment of racial issues demonstrate his appalling level of ignorance regarding institutional racism, and his occasional tweets of scantily clad women suggest misogynist tendencies. Many of the other tweets from this self-identified purveyor of ACC recruiting news amount to little more than obscenities against UNC. Broward's favorite ploy to impress ABCers and intimidate UNC fans is to claim he possesses inside information on scandalous activity at UNC. I first noticed him one day in April, when he tried that tactic on me, and I have been the subject of his harassment numerous times since then.

(I will resist elaborating on the irony in Broward's making so many grammar and punctuation mistakes while calling me stupid.) Those who either retweeted or starred the above tweets as favorites have directed similar aspersions at me, and perhaps no one more so than DevilDJ32. Although DevilDJ32 identifies as an avid Duke fan, his tweets display a churlishness uncharacteristic of Duke alumni. He clearly did not actually attend Duke; otherwise, he would have more sophisticated commentary than his anti-UNC invectives. In fact, the proportion of his tweets maligning UNC is even greater than that of Broward's.

Cheating Blue Ram is an individual focused exclusively on mocking UNC, and the portly ram has likewise directed some insults at me. For the photoshopped picture below, he manipulated and excluded information from my LinkedIn profile and thereby initiated a smear campaign against my qualifications. Reportedly, some of the buffoons on the Pack Pride message boards were beside themselves with glee over the "discovery" that my master's degree did not require a thesis. I was so amused by their trifling that I did not bother explaining that my master's degree did require an original research paper, essentially equivalent to a thesis, and that I also completed graduate coursework in educational assessment and social science research methods.

Since April, my confidence in my writing has allowed me to endure the ongoing ridicule without experiencing the stress I felt during the weeks following my first essay. Yet on one occasion in early August, I allowed the negative Twitter discussions to agitate me. On August 2, the day I published a blog entry highlighting Willingham's plagiarism, WRAL radio host Joe Ovies tweeted the following in an exchange about my entry:

Obviously, I found his jibe irksome, but I actually like Joe, and I enjoyed my two interviews with him and Adam Gold. Three days later, however, a column he published, along with one of his tweets, provoked me to respond with a five-part Twitter rant about him and Adam, though his comments were not even directly related to me. In his column, he wrote, "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." Echoing that sentiment in an exchange regarding the column, he tweeted,

Admittedly, I overreacted, but some reaction was justified. A radio host need not form a judgement about every topic, but, if he is going to form a judgement, he should inform himself about the nuances of the topic first. Joe, however, has clearly not informed himself, nor does he appear to have even read the investigative reports he so flippantly dismisses.

During one of my interviews with Joe and Adam, I stumbled in response to a particular comment from them. One of the two hosts quipped that the previous investigations into the UNC scandal were insufficient because the investigations only extended back to 2007. Those who have informed themselves know Joe's assertion is profoundly inaccurate. Only the first investigation was so limited. The Martin investigation extended back to 1994, and I knew that, but during the interview I was too dumbfounded by the comment to respond effectively (which is why Broward persistently accuses me of having a stuttering problem). Although the N&O has accurately reported that one fact about the Martin Report, the bulk of the N&O's reporting and editorializing on the Martin Report has been egregiously misleading. My frustration with Joe in reaction to his column and tweet, therefore, was his citing the N&O as a credible source, three days after dismissing me as having turned into "the thing [I] despised." Again, if Joe wants to pass judgement on the Martin Report, he should read it himself, rather than merely rely on the N&O to tell him what to think.

Unfortunately, because of my overreaction, I missed an opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue with Joe. In his column, titled "Closing the Book on Mary Willingham," he at least affirmed that Willingham should no longer be taken seriously, which is more than Barrett would admit. Rather than censure Joe for his misinformed assertions, I should have acknowledged his willingness to be critical when no one else in the media would be, and I should have respectfully proposed that he now reconsider his judgement on the previous investigations.

Again, I like Joe despite his misinformed assertions, and I hope he and Adam will have me back on their show after the Wainstein Report is released. I believe those two are actually more open to reason than many others in the media.

Debating Dan Kane

Dan Kane, on the other hand, is not open to reason.

Before I elaborate, I need to apologize to my blog's readers. In late July, I published Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of a four-part essay titled "Steering the Narrative," but I have yet to publish Part 4, sub-titled "Who Knew About the Paper Classes?" Frankly, I was overly ambitious in attempting to complete the fourth part at that time. My reason for postponing is because I could not sufficiently verify all the information I wanted to report, and I do not want to be guilty of the same charge I have made against the N&O and other media outlets. Hence, I am waiting to publish Part 4 until we have the Wainstein Report, which I expect will confirm what the counselors in the Academic Support Program already know: several Arts & Sciences administrators and advisors, and even some faculty members, knew about Julius Nyang'oro's paper classes. In fact, Kane himself obtained testimony that a former associate dean knew about and recommended the paper classes to students, but Kane has not reported that story. Why would he? Acknowledging that the paper classes were widely known in Arts & Sciences would undermine the N&O's narrative of a clandestine operation orchestrated by Athletics to keep athletes eligible to play. Thus, Kane focused his queries on Athletics rather than on Arts & Sciences. If the Wainstein Report names the administrators who knew about the paper classes, I will publish Part 4 and elaborate on the ways Kane neglected to pursue the truth, in favor of sensationalism.

Kane and I have spoken on the phone twice that I can recall, and both times the conversation—or at least my end of the conversation—became somewhat heated, for he is not someone with whom I can reason. Our interactions were more debate than discussion, and I was continually appalled by his propensity to make sensational inferences from incomplete information. For example, on one occasion he cited an email in which a former counselor stated that some athletes took the paper classes because they were at-risk or struggling, and Kane inferred from that statement that athletes had little, if any, choice in their course selection. He refused to accept my explanation that the academic counselors presented each athlete with course options and then helped the athlete make choices according to her or his strengths, interests, and schedule. Of course, Kane and other N&O writers have consistently reported that athletes were "steered" to the paper classes, but my explanation of athletes' enrollment in the paper classes does not sound like steering. The N&O's headlong investment in the "steered athletes" narrative since Willingham made her allegations in November 2012 has precluded them from accepting any arguments to the contrary. They have a narrative, and Kane is sticking to it.

When Kane and I spoke in late July, I also explained to him that the academic counselors did not believe they needed to raise concerns about the paper classes, because the counselors were low-level employees who knew higher-level administrators in Arts & Sciences were already aware of the classes. Instead of questioning the counselors' integrity, I argued, he and the other N&O writers should have pursued the Arts & Sciences administrators who neglected to put a stop to Nyang'oro's nonstandard "independent studies" when the administrators first learned about the classes. Somehow, Kane heard me say something else. Later that day, he wrote in an email,

You also said words to the effect that the ASPSA counselors are low-level employees doing what they were told. I do not recall you telling me who told them it was OK to "recommend" (using your definition, though I think "steer" is fine) these classes to athletes. I would appreciate knowing specifically who told them to do this and if it was put in writing. Obviously, if it was put in writing, I'd like to see a copy of that too.

After aggregating some data, I sent the following response:

No, Dan, I did not say the academic counselors were told to recommend the classes. I said that at their low level they did not have the authority to be the arbiters of what was academically acceptable for a department chairperson to do. They trusted that a longstanding department chairperson was within his rights to be conducting classes the way he had been doing so for years before the academic counselors began their jobs. (I am vouching only for the most recent football counselors, those hired after Cynthia Reynolds.)

Academic advisors and counselors do not need permission to recommend classes that are available to all students at the university, as were the [nonstandard] AFRI/AFAM classes. In fact, as I point out in one of my recent blog entries, there were more [nonstandard] classes that enrolled only non-athletes (26) than there were that enrolled only athletes (21). Furthermore, the [nonstandard] classes were not just small classes that would have been unknown to many students and administrators. Between 2001 and 2012, there were 15 [nonstandard] classes with an enrollment of at least 60, and of those 15, three had enrollments over 100. Interestingly, the percentage of athletes in those 15 classes was only 38% (500 total athletes), and in those 15 classes alone, there were 826 non-athlete enrollments. The counselors could see the enrollments in the electronic advising system, and so they knew the classes were large and enrolled many non-athletes, which gave the counselors more reason to believe the classes were known and accepted by the university. Are we to believe Arts & Sciences administrators had no clue about those 15 classes with sixty or more students enrolled? Are we to believe that among those 826 non-athlete enrollments spread across the 15 classes, not a single non-athlete made remarks in the class evaluations indicating the class never met? Are we to believe none of the Arts & Sciences administrators read those evaluations? In other words, are we to believe that a "paper class system" was able to function in secret with 15 classes that enrolled 60 or more students and were comprised of 62% non-athletes?

I have no hard evidence that any of the Arts & Sciences administrators knew, but I find the notion that they didn't to be quite incredulous. In fact, this point may be the only one on which Willingham and I agree. Consider this section from a recent CNN article:
"In the building, almost everyone would have talked about it," [Willingham] said, referring to working in athletics. "And outside of the athletic department, some other people that were involved in advising certainly knew about the paper class system." 
Also consider her statement in the "Outside the Lines" segment, when she specifically said the Dean of Advising would have known.

If nothing else, the academic counselors believed the Arts & Sciences administrators knew, which was one more reason why they believed Nyang'oro was within his rights to conduct the classes as he had been doing for years before the academic counselors arrived. 
Again, when the academic counselors occasionally recommended the "paper classes," the counselors were recommending classes available to the entire student body and in which a significant number from the non-athlete student body enrolled. Furthermore, the low number of football players who majored in AFRI or AFAM in any given year demonstrates that the counselors were not "steering" football players to the AFRI/AFAM major. Some of the football players chose AFRI or AFAM at the recommendation of the counselors based on the individual player's interests and strengths and often after the player had tried other majors first. The fact that McAdoo only enrolled in four of the "paper classes" out of approximately 30 total classes further suggests that the counselors were not persistently "steering" non-AFRI/AFAM majors to the classes, either. 
Quite simply, the numbers don't support the hypothesis that this was an athletics scandal.

(You can view the aggregated data on the nonstandard classes with 60 or more enrollments here. I hope Wainstein will address my questions regarding Nyang'oro's teaching evaluations.)

Kane and I sent a couple more brief emails back and forth, and then he asked whether any of my colleagues would be willing to talk with him. I responded,

They definitely are not willing to speak to you. Most people I know do not trust you. Willingham has claimed that people are afraid to publicly support her, but the truth is actually that people are reluctant to publicly contradict her because they are afraid you will quote them out of context or that you will manipulate their words for your purposes. I tried really hard to convince myself you were reporting fairly when you were given enough information to do so. But after I saw the print version of the article you wrote about me, and I looked more carefully at the way you wrote the article, I could see how strategically you crafted it to make me look like I was contradicting myself, which allowed the print version to have the title it did. Until a couple months ago, I had not read the Martin Report, and so I accepted your paper's criticism of it. However, after I read the Report, I recognized how thorough it was and, thus, how dishonest your paper's reporting on it has been. Furthermore, you say your information about [the former associate dean's] knowledge of the paper classes wasn't sufficient or consistent enough to warrant a story, but you have written stories with less. I think you didn't write the story because you don't want the public to know that even one Arts & Sciences administrator may have known about the paper classes. You need the public to believe that the paper classes were a secret known only by Athletics and the Academic Support Program. You need the public to be ignorant because if they knew the counselors had no reason to believe there was anything wrong with the paper classes and that the counselors were doing their job in helping athletes choose classes according the individual athlete's strengths, interests, abilities, and goals, then your narrative of an athletics scandal would be thin.

None of the academic support staff is going to speak with you, Dan, because we don't believe you are honest. Your reporting, while gaining the attention of BusinessWeek and New York Times, has hurt good people. You, Dan, have hurt people with your clever conjecturing and insinuating and manipulating of the facts. Some people still maintain the romantic conception of the journalist as public servant. That conception died for me a while ago, and you were among the journalists most responsible for killing it.

Kane replied that I am much nicer over the phone than in emails.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In The Education of Henry Adams, published in 1918, Adams declared, "Practical politics consists in ignoring the facts." Nearly a century later, we may revise Adams's statement to say, "Practical journalism consists in ignoring the facts."

Some among the UNC community are ready to forget the AFAM/AFRI scandal once the Wainstein Report is released and the NCAA concludes its investigation, regardless of the outcome. However, I believe we have an obligation to ourselves and to society not to forget. If, as I expect, the Wainstein Report mostly confirms the conclusion of the Martin Report—that the paper classes were not the manifestation of an insidious athletics scandal—then we must recognize that individuals within our community as well as the community as a whole have been the victims of widespread journalistic misconduct. Lest anyone doubt that, remember the February 27 BusinessWeek cover page below.

My experience the past seven months has convinced me that, as citizens, we must hold the media accountable for their failure to report the truth. Too many in the media are not conducting themselves responsibly, and the consequences for society are too grave to ignore. A functioning democracy requires informed citizens. When we are subject to continual misinformation, we cannot make sound decisions for ourselves and our communities.

Numerous examples of journalistic malpractice, ranging from complacence to misconduct, have surfaced in recent years. Writer Luke O'Neil published an excellent column last week in Playboy (no, I do not typically peruse that magazine for either the pictures or the articles), titled "We Can't Handle the Truth: Digital Journalism's Lack of Standards," in which he cogently articulated the problem as follows:

Why do websites of otherwise trustworthy news organizations stoop to such lows? Because journalism’s digital business model, which forces outlets to compete for the same ad space with the most irresponsible websites on the internet, has created a new reality. Journalists, without the time or wherewithal to carry out a bare minimum of investigation under an unprecedentedly short news cycle, are forced to chase viral clicks and the pennies they bring, posting stories engineered toward “virality” to court their new social-media kingmakers. Once, credibility was the linchpin of journalism. Today, as dubiously sourced stories multiply, it’s an afterthought.

Sports journalism seems especially vulnerable to malpractice. Of course, readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the example Yahoo! Sports writer Pat Forde provided this summer, when he used the term hazing to sensationalize a story about an altercation between UNC football players. Another example recently making news was the ESPN Outside the Lines story that misrepresented text messages from Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to Ray Rice, sensationalizing the report that Bisciotti attempted to bribe Rice. Even more shameful is the example from the story that Sports Illustrated (SI) published last year depicting rampant improprieties in the Oklahoma State football program. Soon after the story was published, ESPN's Brett McMurphy quickly discovered several inaccuracies, resulting from the SI writers' utter failure to verify allegations.

Involving sports, the most egregious example of the media's bias toward sensationalism is the entrenched narrative that Joe Paterno was involved in a cover-up of Jerry Sandusky's heinous acts of child sex abuse. Until earlier this year, I had accepted the media's narrative about Paterno's culpability. However, considering my experience watching the media sensationalize the culpability of athletics in the UNC scandal, I decided to examine the facts of the Penn State scandal more closely. Without question, Jerry Sandusky's crimes were horrific, and I quiver just thinking about them. Sandusky's depravity notwithstanding, I am now convinced Paterno (and Graham Spanier) was unfairly castigated, and many others have been recognizing the same, as more facts about that abhorrent story are uncovered. The Penn State narrative is changing, and the media is being held accountable. I recommend the documentary film 365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley for a counter-narrative about what happened at Penn State and how the Penn State community has responded.

As has been the case with the Penn State scandal, the media's narrative about the UNC scandal is that athletics success trumped institutional integrity, leading to insidious malfeasance. Although I am not so naïve to believe UNC athletics is blameless, I do not believe the media's narrative of systemic corruption. I have met too many good people affiliated with UNC athletics to believe that narrative.

Ironically, Mary Willingham herself described some of those good people exactly as I would describe them, when she wrote the following in an official department report in 2007:

I am encouraged by the overall support from the entire staff here at the Academic Center as well as across the campus. It is a pleasure to work in a learning community that supports the needs of students, and is willing to meet the challenges of this changing population.

Yet, despite Willingham's documented testimony in that report and elsewhere, she has perpetuated the media's sensationalized narrative, and she and Jay Smith aim to extend that narrative next year, with the publication of their book Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports

Willingham and Smith must not have the last word. The narrative of an athletics scandal at UNC is not true, and the reality of journalistic misconduct is too pressing to simply move on after the NCAA concludes its investigation. This essay is likely my last blog entry until the Wainstein Report is released, but, in the meantime, I will continue working on a major project I started over the summer. With that project, I hope to challenge the popular understanding of the UNC scandal by further examining the ways journalists from local and national media outlets propagated unverified claims, manipulated inconclusive information, and distorted the facts related to official investigations. Furthermore, I hope to explore the penetrating effects the media’s ongoing sensationalism has had on athletics personnel, the athletes themselves, and the broader UNC community. This project is not just about vindicating UNC but also about holding the media accountable for failing the public.

Such a project is not one I can complete alone. At some point, I will be reaching out to the UNC community for assistance. Speaking truth in a media-saturated world is indeed a challenge, but I have endeavored at that challenge to the best of my ability for the past seven months. With the community's help, I hope to continue speaking the truth about UNC for as long as is necessary.

We can, and will, handle the truth.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Emails Demonstrate Mary Willingham Resisted UNC's Attempts to Examine Her Research

Two weeks ago, Brad Wolverton, a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, published an article praising Mary Willingham for her campaign against college athletics. In his article, Wolverton portrays Willingham as a virtuous whistleblower challenging a compromised UNC administration unwilling to accept the truth Willingham speaks. He wrote, "North Carolina’s administrators seem to think that, by undermining the messenger, they can defend the integrity of the flagship campus."

No, Mr. Wolverton, the UNC administration does not think that "undermining the messenger" is a legitimate means of defending the university, nor did the administration engage in any such undermining.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The UNC Scandal: By the Numbers

A week ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education joined the ranks of BusinessWeek, CBS, CNN, ESPN, HBO, and Yahoo! Sports as national media outlets that have resorted to parroting the N&O rather than engaging in original reporting on the UNC scandal. The Chronicle published two articles, on the same day, covering the UNC scandal, though no new information has surfaced since Mary Willingham's plagiarism was discovered. Both articles distorted the facts, reflecting the typical eagerness journalists show to report on an athletics scandal. I was especially disappointed because I have spent time talking with both authors, and so I hoped they would demonstrate more fairness and rigor in their reporting.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Writing with Integrity: A Free Lesson for Dan Kane and Andrew Carter

Andrew Carter has been quite defensive lately. Earlier this summer, during an exchange he and I had on Twitter, the UNC beat writer was especially sensitive to my accusation that his newspaper is consistently biased toward sensationalism.

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.