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.

I spent 13 years of my life in Chapel Hill and was in some type of academic environment for most of it. I have toyed with the idea of writing a response to the negative UNC stories over the past year or so, but I was never sufficiently motivated to do so until recently, when I read an article about Coach Roy Williams and Rashad McCants. Sadly, my alma mater has been disparaged relentlessly over the past few years in the state of North Carolina due mainly to academic issues allegedly surrounding the athletic department. The talk is not the positive publicity we Tar Heels had grown accustomed to, but that is not the point. The point is that it has been borderline defamation by a select few in the local and national media.

I played on the golf team at UNC from 1998 – 2003 (I redshirted one year), and by no means would I compare playing golf at UNC to playing basketball or football, but I believe all UNC athletes share a common experience nonetheless. Playing any sport at UNC was difficult due to the time commitment required. UNC is a very difficult school to get into, and then once you are there, it is very challenging academically, even for a high school valedictorian. As for reports of athletes reading on fourth grade levels, do I agree? Not completely, but I am sure there were and are some student-athletes who struggled with the curriculum. Do I think many athletes would not be at UNC if not for their sport? Absolutely. Do I think UNC gave out grades to athletes? Absolutely not. I personally know far too many athletes who worked hard to stay in school and earn a degree.

I was a team captain for three years, so I had to work closely with the coaches, the academic staff, and my teammates to make sure matters (including academic, athletic, and social) were handled appropriately. As I mentioned before, UNC is a hard school to get into and a really hard school to do well in once you are there. Many students, athletes and non-athletes alike, struggle. Thankfully, UNC has an academic support system in place to help student-athletes. Much of what is being criticized in the media is that "help." I went to the academic support center many times during my athletic career. There were always players from other teams present. We had to sign up for a time (usually 30-60 minute slots) to get tutoring. This could range from help on math assignments, to help on outlines and papers, to assistance with the final editing of a paper. We were usually in rooms where we could hear other tutors helping athletes. I never once heard or saw a tutor do anyone’s work. In fact, the practice was that tutors would help with wording or structure, but the athlete had to come up with the idea and then type or write the words in themselves. I will adamantly defend that the tutoring we received was regulated, structured, and at no time did I see work done for athletes. Additionally, many teams required study hall hours for the players and almost always the freshman. There were certain GPA requirements one had to meet to be excused from going to study hall hours. Some teams and coaches required a certain number of hours no matter what the GPA was.

I would be lying and showing my bias if I told you that there was nothing wrong at UNC or any other institution in the country in regard to academics and athletes. The athletic program would not have received any penalties from the NCAA if there were no problems, but I do feel like UNC is being singled out because it is UNC and because the media will not let the story go away and wants to see UNC fail. As for my undergraduate work, I admit I took a "paper class," as they are called, and a few online classes as well. They were referred to as independent studies when I was in college. I met with Deborah Crowder and explained to her that I needed to take a class that filled an AFAM prerequisite, but due to my golf travel and playing schedule, there were few classes that I could take. She was able to enroll me in a class in which I had about three to four topics to choose from to write a 25-page paper. Did everyone write a 25-page paper? I doubt it, but I do know that in these "paper classes" work was required for a grade. How did I learn of said class? I learned about it from my roommates and other friends, not from another athlete. More importantly, Ms. Crowder did not let me take the class just because I was an athlete. In fact, I would venture to guess that over 30 of my fraternity brothers took a class similar to this, and I know a few of them who did not write a paper and received an F or an incomplete in the class.

The curriculum at UNC is one that is very diverse and there are a lot of unusual requirements that one has to take to graduate. Athletes are no different than any other student when it comes to meeting all these requirements,with the exception of scheduling, as there are many factors student-athletes have to deal with, such as practice, workouts, study hall hours, games, etc. I mentioned the online classes because at the time these were basically the same as independent studies, except less work was required in my experience. We had to get on a forum and post about a topic and comment on a selection that we were to have read. A certain number of insightful posts were connected to a certain grade. I remind you that this was back in 1999 - 2003 when online courses were just beginning and people were learning about the internet, so I assume a lot has changed since then. Very few, if any, of the online courses I took had a final exam, but they all had some type of final assignment such as a paper. I did not take any of these classes to raise my GPA or to stay eligible. I took them because I needed a certain requirement, and due to time constraints this was sometimes the only way I could complete a course. 

I did not play for Coach Williams, but I have had the privilege to get to know him outside of basketball. His daughter and my wife were on the dance team at UNC together, and my father’s recently deceased best friend was a good friend of Coach Williams. Also, my grandparents were close with Coach Smith, so they also got to know Coach Williams, and I personally came to know him through one of my good friends who was an assistant golf coach at UNC. Why does all this matter? It probably does not matter to many of you, but it allowed me to see Coach Williams in many different facets of life. I discovered that he is one of the most caring, dedicated, hardworking, and driven individuals any of us would ever met. He would come to UNC anytime he did not have a game at Kansas to watch his daughter dance when she was selected to do so. He wears purple on his shoes during Coaches vs. Cancer week for one of his best friends battling pancreatic cancer. He went to my father’s friend’s funeral during the middle of the season to show his support for the family. He would ask me how my family was doing whenever I saw him. He would do any of this for almost anyone whether he knew them or not. More importantly, he would do all of this and more for UNC. He loves and cares about this university as many alumni do.

This isn’t about Coach Williams, even though I felt like I needed to write that and I could write much more. This is about UNC and its reputation. I am only one person, but I know there are many just like me, and many who are more qualified to write this, but we do not have a forum to be heard, or we are not famous enough to where we can make a comment and people will listen. The sexy story is academic fraud or agents running wild, but I think it has been overblown regarding a small few, and the majority of students and student-athletes specifically have not been heard from. Some of them don’t have the time to try to find a forum to be heard in, and even if they did, their message may fall on deaf ears. That's why I felt like I needed to write something to get it off my chest and give another side of the story that may alert the masses that there is a different side and likely a more common side to this story.

We all know there have been issues at UNC, but too many people are ignoring the bigger picture and the more common experiences such as mine in favor of the few that make the story more of a fictitious drama than actual real life events. I wrote this because I would not trade the educational, athletic, and social experience I had at UNC for the experience at any other institution. I believe there is far more positive than negative at UNC, especially when it comes to being a student-athlete.

Again, my name is Bob Cherry, and I am Tar Heel. Thank you for reading.

Bradley Bethel, the primary writer for Coaching the Mind, contributed as editor for this essay.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Truth is Not in the Transcripts: Refuting Willingham, McCants, and Kane

Last week Rashad McCants appeared on ESPN's Outside the Lines for a second time, to defend allegations he made against his former teammates, academic support staff, and coaches at UNC. McCants asserted that the truth is in the transcripts, a mantra traced back to Mary Willingham. N&O reporter Dan Kane supports both Willingham and McCants.

As a discredited public figure, Mary Willingham belongs in the company of Andrew Wakefield. In February 1998, Wakefield, a physician and researcher, stunned the medical and pharmaceutical communities at a press conference where he called for the suspension of the MMR vaccine because he believed it could cause autism. He supported his hypothesis by citing results from a study he published that month in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal. In his study of 12 children with developmental disorders, Wakefield reported discovering a link between the MMR vaccine, bowel disease, and autism. News of the study quickly spread throughout the world and has led to the widespread fear of vaccines and the decline of vaccine rates, triggering a surge of preventable diseases that had been nearly eradicated in American and European societies.

However, in 2004, after other researchers from around the world were unable to replicate Wakefield’s findings, an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times reported that Wakefield had committed several improprieties throughout the study. The ensuing scandal eventually prompted the British General Medical Council (GMC) to launch an investigation into Wakefield’s conduct. Concluding their investigation in 2010, the GMC found that Wakefield had manipulated data for the study and employed procedures unapproved by the hospital’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), resulting in several violations of medical and research ethics. Following the investigation, The Lancet retracted the study’s publication, and the British Medical Register barred Wakefield from practicing medicine in the UK.

Today, Wakefield’s only remaining supporters are conspiracy theorists, fringe Whole Foods shoppers, and Jenny McCarthy.

To those following the UNC scandal, the similarities between Wakefield and Willingham are obvious. Willingham, a former reading specialist for UNC athletes, had attracted some media attention prior to this year, but most of it was local. Then, in January, she shocked UNC and college athletics when CNN reported results from her research finding that nearly 70% of a sample of 183 UNC athletes entered college with reading abilities below high school level. In the five months since then, Willingham has made several national media appearances, citing data from her study and repeating her mantra, “The truth is in the transcripts,” to support her claim that UNC “profit athletes” do not receive a “real education.”

Willingham’s study, however, was rife with flaws. In response to the CNN report, UNC contracted three experts in educational assessment to independently review Willingham’s data and determine whether her conclusions were sound. On April 11, UNC published the complete independent review, which revealed several instances of egregious misinterpretation on Willingham’s part. Most significantly, all three experts stressed that the assessment on which Willingham based her findings only measured vocabulary and, therefore, was not a valid measure of students’ overall reading levels. Furthermore, the experts’ statistical findings were exponentially different from Willingham’s. Whereas Willingham had reported nearly 70% of her sample scored below high school level, the independent reviewers found less than 7% earned vocabulary scores that low. In other words, Willingham’s calculation was inflated ten times beyond what the independent reviewers found.

Clearly, Willingham either fabricated aspects of her research, as did Wakefield, or she is so incompetent she should have never been entrusted with educational assessment in the first place.

Nevertheless, the same day the independent review was released, Willingham countered via a tweet from Sara Ganim, the CNN reporter who published the original story on Willingham’s research. Attached to the tweet was a note from Willingham, and four days later she posted a slightly longer blog entry repeating the same point from the note: the independent reviewers could not replicate her findings because they did not have all the data she used to arrive at her conclusions. According to Willingham, she combined results from multiple tests, not just the vocabulary test, to determine the grade level equivalents.

Although Ganim and BusinessWeek’s Paul Barrett cited Willingham’s rebuttal as if it were sound, those of us familiar with educational assessment understood her argument as specious. As I explained in a response to one of her defenders, grade level equivalents are not determined by combining results from multiple tests. Therefore, Willingham’s rebuttal made no sense from an assessment perspective. Again, she clearly either fabricated aspects of her research or she committed a blunder only the most incompetent reading specialist could commit. I may have little regard for her intellect, but I do not believe she is that moronic.

A month later, Willingham’s credibility was further undermined when her IRB research application, released in response to public records requests, revealed that her findings extended beyond the scope of her stated research purposes and that she never obtained consent from the athletes to use their protected academic and health information for research purposes. Her failure to obtain consent constitutes a violation of the most fundamental ethical principle in human subjects research and, accordingly, may have also constituted a violation of federal laws. Not even Ganim and Barrett could defend Willingham after those revelations.

With fabricated data and ethical violations as new bullet points on her résumé, Willingham can now join Wakefield in the club of attention-seeking charlatans who will employ any means necessary to advance their hyperbolic claims and spurious hypotheses. Unfortunately, though, Willingham has not experienced an official discrediting the way Wakefield did when The Lancet retracted his study and when the Medical Register revoked his license. Because CNN lacks the same integrity as The Lancet, Ganim is unlikely ever to retract her stories on Willingham. Even so, on May 28, Willingham experienced a symbolic discrediting that has left her with even fewer remaining supporters.

In January, Willingham had submitted written testimony as an expert witness for the O’Bannon plaintiffs in their class action lawsuit against the NCAA. In addition to CNN’s report on Willingham's research, her designation as an expert in a potentially landmark legal case gave her the credibility to attract the attention of BusinessWeek, ESPN’s Outside the Lines, and HBO’s Real Sports, among other media outlets, for the first five months of 2014. However, six weeks after the independent review disproved her findings, and one week after her research application revealed her dishonesty, the O’Bannon plaintiffs withdrew Willingham from their list of expert witnesses. In other words, her last remaining opportunity to trumpet her allegations against UNC Athletics and establish her legacy as an NCAA reformer was taken from her. Without O’Bannon’s backing, Willingham has no more claims to credibility.

For five months, the national media lauded Mary Willingham as a heroic whistleblower whose testimony perfectly illustrated the decadence of college athletics. Nonetheless, since being abandoned by O'Bannon, she has been reduced to a discredited former reading specialist so disgraced she will not even take comments on her blog.

McCants and Kane to the Rescue

On June 6, UNC was scandalized again, when ESPN’s Outside the Lines (OTL) broadcast the unverified claims of malcontent former basketball player Rashad McCants. Brian Barbour of published a concise appraisal of the story, and I shared my reaction in an interview with WCHL. Moreover, criticism from current and former UNC athletes and even a former rival player from NC State proliferated across Twitter. The most cogent and relevant response, though, came from McCants’s 16 former teammates, who issued a joint statement in which they declared, “Our personal academic experiences are not consistent with Rashad's claims.”

In other words, McCants lied.

Notwithstanding McCants’s defamatory allegations, on which he elaborated in a second interview last week, he did allow OTL to obtain an unofficial copy of his transcript. Citing the transcript as evidence, OTL demonstrated that McCants may have maintained his progress toward graduation through his enrollment in substandard African American Studies (AFAM) and African Studies (AFRI) classes taught by Julius Nyang’oro. Of course, OTL writer Steve Delsohn framed his interpretation of McCants’s transcript in more sensationalist terms, asserting McCants “remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.” However, phraseology matters, and I will elucidate the difference between my phrasing and Delsohn’s phrasing later in this essay.

Incidentally, the same day McCants delivered his mouthwatering claims to hungry journalists across the country, Mary Willingham made news again. She was featured in another story by Dan Kane, the dauntless N&O investigative journalist whose proclivity for self-paraphrasing may be unmatched this side of the Mississippi. Paul Barrett seems to have abandoned Willingham, and Sara Ganim’s support has abated, leaving Kane as the only remaining journalist taking Willingham seriously. Conveniently, her claims, and the supposed evidence she presented in Kane’s story that day, correspond with some of McCants’s claims about his enrollment in substandard AFAM/AFRI classes.

In Kane’s story, he reports on new data from Willingham, acquired from her after her infamous tweet on April 6:

Of course, considering Willingham’s history of fabricating and manipulating data, a journalist complying with the highest standards of journalism would have withheld publishing Willingham’s new data until its accuracy could be verified. Verification, however, has apparently become a lost art among N&O journalists, who seem more eager to circulate scandal and win a Pulitzer than to tell the truth. The N&O just expects readers to accept Willingham’s data with no way of assessing its veracity. Nevertheless, if we suspend disbelief, as if we were reading the Twilight series, and blindly accept the data, we can still challenge the way Kane reported it. His reporting, like Stephanie Meyer’s storytelling, gives us plenty to scrutinize.

One minor point to scrutinize in Kane’s story, first, is the misleading reference, in the title of the article, to Willingham’s data as “records.” Records, in this case, would be official documents generated by the university, not selectively aggregated data points arranged to advance a particular narrative. Kane uses the correct term, data, throughout the remainder of the article, but by choosing the term records for the title, the copy editors make the data sound more official, which allows Kane to propagate the false notion that Willingham is a whistleblower. Such wiles exemplify the cunning way journalists and editors manipulate facts to distort reality and steer narratives. For the narrative in question, we must be clear: Willingham is no Edward Snowden, and Kane is no Glenn Greenwald.

In addition, and more importantly, although the data reveals only that five players from the 2005 national championship team enrolled in substandard AFAM/AFRI classes during their college careers, Kane slyly insinuates a story far more scandalous. The title of the article is “2005 national champs relied on suspect classes, records show,” and the very first sentence reads, “Rashad McCants was not the only UNC men’s basketball player from the 2005 national championship team who relied heavily on African studies classes that didn’t meet.” Notice Kane’s use of the prepositional verb rely on. Typically, rely on requires both a direct object and a prepositional phrase or an infinitive phrase for the meaning of the sentence to be clear. For example, consider the following sentence:

Dan Kane relies on conjecture and insinuation.

After reading that sentence, one should ask, “What does Kane rely on conjecture and insinuation for?”

Now consider this revised version of the sentence:

Dan Kane relies on conjecture and insinuation to steer his sensationalized narrative.

With the added infinitive phrase, “to advance his scandalous narrative,” the meaning of the sentence becomes clear. Without the infinitive phrase, the sentence remains ambiguous. Ambiguity allows for insinuation, which is exactly why Kane, in his story, strategically uses a verb requiring an infinitive phrase but then refrains from including any infinitive phrase. By titling and beginning his article with an ambiguous statement about basketball players’ relying on substandard classes, Kane is able to structure the remainder of the article so as to insinuate that the players relied on those classes to stay eligible to win the 2005 national championship.

However, the data itself does not confirm Kane’s insinuation. Although McCants himself may have disregarded his studies and relied on his enrollment in the substandard classes to maintain his academic eligibility, the conclusion that his teammates similarly relied on those classes, just because those players were enrolled, is illogical. (Specifically, that assertion is an example of the fallacy hasty generalization.) In other words, his teammates’ enrollment in the substandard classes does not necessarily mean those players would have been academically ineligible without the classes. McCants’s teammates, more committed to their education than he, may have maintained UNC’s required 2.0 GPA even without the substandard classes.

Therefore, absent a comparison between the players’ GPAs with and without the substandard classes, Kane’s insinuation remains unverified. Once again, he has steered the narrative toward scandal, and Willingham, now assisted by McCants, was there to set the course.

Is the Truth in More Transcripts?

As a guest on WCHL last week, Kane rallied UNC detractors when he channeled the triviality of Willingham and McCants and averred that FERPA has obstructed his effort to find the truth. Referring to Willingham’s platitude, “The truth is in the transcripts,” UNC detractors dogmatically believe former UNC basketball players’ transcripts will provide the evidence needed to justify detractors’ boorish cries to take down UNC’s championship banners. Yet the truth in the transcripts is not the scandalous truth conjectured and insinuated by histrionic radio hosts, Pulitzer-chasing journalists, and vitriolic rivals. Outside the Lines writer Steve Delsohn wants readers to believe McCants “remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.” Kane seems to believe other former players’ transcripts could reveal the same. However, even if none of the players would have maintained their progress toward graduation without the substandard classes, Delsohn’s phrasing is misleading for at least two reasons.

First, athletes’ enrollment in substandard classes does not indicate those classes were “designed” to keep athletes eligible to play. Concluding such is another example of fallacious reasoning (specifically, faulty induction or invalid inference). After three years of investigation, neither Kane nor any of the official investigators, both internal and external to UNC, have uncovered any evidence of collusion or malfeasance on the part of Athletics or the Academic Support Program for Students-Athletes (ASPSA). In other words, none of the evidence presented thus far has indicated any athletes, Athletics staff, or Academic Support staff were involved in the “design” of Nyang’oro’s substandard classes, and the evidence for determining such will not be found in more transcripts from athletes.

Second, Delsohn’s term bogus is more sensational than accurate as a descriptor of the AFAM/AFRI lecture classes Nyang’oro taught as independent studies. Similar to Paul Barrett, who prefers the term fake, Delsohn uses the term bogus to exaggerate the extent of the academic fraud in the AFAM/AFRI department and to sensationalize the story and underscore detractors’ cries for UNC to vacate its national championships. However, Delsohn, Barrett, and others inveighing against UNC either intentionally obfuscate the difference or ignorantly fail to distinguish between misconduct and fraud. Misconduct is behavior that does not conform to accepted professional or ethical standards (e.g., neglecting to obtain consent from students before accessing their federally protected academic records for research purposes). Fraud is an especially egregious type of misconduct that involves deception with the intent to obtain unfair benefits or unlawful gain (e.g., fabricating data about athletes’ reading levels to gain the media’s attention and promote a book). Nyang’oro’s conducting lecture classes as independent studies and grading them with inappropriate lenience may have been academic misconduct on his part, but it was not necessarily academic fraud.

In other words, substandard is not synonymous with bogus, fake, or fraudulent, nor is misconduct synonymous with fraud.

McCants’s transcript, therefore, does not verify Delsohn’s widely parroted contention that McCants “remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.” Only the testimonies of Nyang’oro and his office manager Debbie Crowder can explain the classes’ design, and bogus is a misleading term Delsohn uses liberally only to sensationalize McCants’s already sensationalized claims. McCants’s transcript merely shows that he may have maintained his progress toward graduation through his enrollment in substandard classes, and more transcripts would not reveal any information more scandalous than that. Phraseology matters when determining the truth—or, if you are journalist, when distorting the truth.

Investigating Misconduct and Potential Fraud

Again, fraud involves deceit with the intent to obtain unmerited benefit(s). Since 2011, after fastidious NC State fans discovered significant plagiarism in a publicized paper written by former UNC football player Michael McAdoo, the university, contrary to the media’s narrative, has diligently investigated the apparent misconduct and potential academic fraud involving Nyang'oro and Crowder. In fact, the university promptly reported McAdoo’s paper to the NCAA and subsequently cooperated with the NCAA’s investigation into potential academic fraud in the AFAM/AFRI department. The internal committee cooperating with the NCAA concluded the following:

No instance was found of a student receiving a grade who had not submitted written work. No evidence indicated that student-athletes received more favorable treatment than students who were not athletes. In addition, no information was found to indicate [AFAM/AFRI] personnel involved in these courses received a tangible benefit of any kind, beyond their standard University compensation (quoted from summary in Hartlyn-Andrews Report, p. 1).

Every investigation since then—the most extensive being that conducted by Former Governor Jim Martin (with the assistance of the national accounting firm Bake Tilly)—has essentially confirmed those findings. Martin’s investigation extended all the way back to 1994 and found “no confirmation for speculation that ASPSA’s academic counselors colluded with instructors or administrators [. . .] for the benefit of student-athletes or engaged in any improper activities to maintain eligibility of a student-athlete,” nor did Martin’s investigation find “any instances in which unusual personal or professional gains or incentives were received by Dr. Nyang’oro or Ms. Crowder in exchange for courses offered within the Department” (Martin Report, p. 9). Quite simply, Martin found no evidence of collusion intended to benefit either Crowder and Nyang’oro or, more importantly, the athletes enrolled in the substandard classes. Therefore, again, journalists’ and detractors’ referring to the substandard classes as fraudulent, just because the classes were taught as independent studies and leniently graded, is inaccurate and serves only to sensationalize the narrative.

The Martin Report notwithstanding, one instance of potential criminal fraud was later identified by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). A year after the Martin Report was released, the Orange County District Attorney charged Nyang’oro with obtaining property through false pretenses for accepting an additional $12,000 salary (beyond his standard salary) from the university for teaching a Summer 2011 lecture class that never met. Note that of the many lecture classes Nyango’oro taught as independent studies, the SBI only identified the Summer 2011 class as potentially fraudulent. Again, misconduct and fraud are not the same, and journalists who conflate those terms are selling a narrative rather than reporting the news.

Indeed, selling narratives is plainly the N&O’s business, as anyone who has suffered through one of Kane’s articles recognizes. In a steadfast endeavor to produce scandal, the paper’s executive editor, John Drescher, has been a remarkably shrewd businessman. Perhaps his most effective stratagem has been the perceptibly coordinated effort among N&O writers to discredit the Martin Report. At least five N&O writers—including Ned Barnett, Andrew Curliss, Luke DeCock, Dan Kane, and John Drescher himself—and the editorial board have criticized the Martin Report for not finding evidence to verify the N&O’s ongoing conjecture and insinuation. Drescher’s original criticism of the report centered on Baker Tilly’s retracting what Drescher referred to as a “key finding,” though the finding in question was the second to last of the 15 findings on which Martin based his conclusion. In other words, Drescher’s argument is nothing but quibbling, and Martin’s conclusion easily stands without that one finding. The other N&O writers have resorted to non sequiturs and questionable premises to criticize the Martin Report. Instead of engaging the 100 pages of evidence the report provides, N&O writers strategically cherry-pick the available evidence and remonstrate about the unavailable evidence, perpetuating the conjecture and insinuation underscoring the N&O’s narrative. Evidently, the N&O jumped to a conclusion years ago, and they maintain that any investigation which does not validate their conclusion is, as DeCock alleged, a “whitewash.”

Yet what if a group of people more qualified than the N&O’s Pulitzer-chasing journalists could evaluate the Martin Report and judge its credibility? Most readers, I am sure, would agree an external committee of higher education professionals led by the president of a major university outside the UNC system could be entrusted to make a sound judgment of the Martin Report and the university’s overall efforts to address the academic misconduct. Most readers, then, should feel assured knowing such a committee was convened by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to determine UNC’s compliance with the accrediting agency’s higher education standards. Last year the president of Texas A&M University led a review committee that included the interim provost at the University of Alabama, a professor from the University of Florida, and the Vice President of the SACS Commission on Colleges. After the committee visited campus in April 2013 and submitted its review and one recommendation, the university responded with a plan to comply with the recommendation. The university’s four-page response included the following statement:

The University does not believe that credit was awarded for courses in which students did no work, or that degrees were awarded to students who did not earn them. All of the evidence that has been found – as initially reported in the Review of Courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and subsequently reiterated in Governor Martin’s Academic Anomalies Review Report and the Board of Governors Academic Review Panel Report – indicates that students were required to write lengthy papers [. . .] and did what they were asked to do. In every case in which the University looked for evidence of work, evidence was found – often including drafts or final versions of the papers themselves. None of the investigations found evidence that students received credit for courses for which they did no work (p. 1).

Two months later, SACS voted to accept the university’s response and not issue sanctions against the university. In other words, the external organization responsible for determining whether universities are complying with recognized standards of integrity and practice in higher education affirmed the thoroughness of previous investigations into the academic misconduct at UNC as well as the care UNC has demonstrated to ensure such misconduct does not happen again.

Undeterred and blinded by confirmation bias, John Drescher and his N&O minions have dismissed the the SACS review like they did the Martin Report. Reasonable people, however, recognize that the president of a major university and his fellow committee members are far more qualified to evaluate the findings of the Martin Report than a group of reporters at one newspaper desperate to win a Pulitzer.

Despite the N&O's efforts, none of the evidence identified thus far indicates Nyang’oro’s substandard classes were part of a fraudulent scheme to keep athletes eligible for competition, and not even all the transcripts from every UNC athlete since 1994 would confirm or deny the reality of such a scheme. With the testimonies of Nyang’oro and Crowder unavailable until recently, the university took every possible step to investigate the academic misconduct and potential fraud. Contrary to Willingham’s mantra, the truth is not in the transcripts. The truth is in the testimonies, which current external investigator Kenneth Wainstein now has and will disclose soon.

Forged Signatures and Unauthorized Grade Changes

Heretofore, I have only discussed the academic misconduct that involved Nyang'oro's substandard classes, because those classes were the focus of McCants's allegations in his interviews with Outside the Lines. However, as the Martin Report revealed, the academic misconduct perpetuated by Nyang'oro and Crowder extended beyond the substandard classes. Martin also reported evidence of forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes, which one could argue constituted fraud. Be that as it may, one must keep in mind three important points about the forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes.

First, the scope of the grade changes applied to athletes has been strategically misconstrued by journalists like Paul Barrett and Dan Kane whose objective is selling scandal rather than representing the facts. To advance their conjectured and insinuated narrative of collusion and malfeasance on the part of Athletics and Academic Support, such journalists frequently cite the statistic of 500+ unauthorized or suspected unauthorized grade changes between 2001 and 2012. However, that statistic includes those grade changes applied to athletes and non-athletes alike. The number of grade changes applied only to athletes was 253. Yet even that number must be broken down further because the grade changes included both permanent and temporary grade changes. Temporary grade changes are not uncommon, especially for athletes, whose travel schedules may interfere with final due dates. Of the 253 unauthorized or suspected unauthorized grade changes for athletes, 231 were temporary. That leaves only four unauthorized permanent grade changes and 18 suspected unauthorized permanent grade changes applied to athletes. Contrast those numbers to the 22 unauthorized permanent grade changes and 75 suspected unauthorized grade changes applied to non-athletes, and the supposed fraud orchestrated specifically to keep athletes eligible to play looks much less likely than it does when the misleading 500+ statistic is cited. (See Addendum to the Martin Report, Figure A12, for a full breakdown of the grade changes.)

Second, as I explained in the previous section, SACS accepted the university's evidence to support the position that academic credit was only awarded to students who submitted work, even in those classes for which Crowder forged the instructor's signature. Therefore, the students—athletes and non-athletes alike—who took those classes cannot rightly be accused of attempting to obtain fraudulent credit. In other words, if the forged signatures constituted fraud, Crowder, not the students, is the only guilty party, and the students were actually victims. Of course, a single guilty administrator makes for a less scandalous narrative than do scores of guilty athletes, which is why the media has resisted acknowledging the athletes' blamelessness.

Third, not even McCants and Willingham have suggested Athletics or Academic Support staff were aware of the forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes. Again, the Martin Report found no evidence that Athletics or Academic Support staff colluded with Nyang'oro or Crowder in any aspect of the misconduct. Kane has ballyhooed about a "cozy" relationship between academic counselors and Nyang'oro, but for all of Kane's clamor, the worst offense he could find in the emails was a single instance of a counselor asking Nyang'oro whether he would offer a class he had previously offered. Kane will need to find much more than "cozy" relationships to verify his insinuation of fraud on the part of Athletics or Academic Support staff.

In short, if the forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes constituted fraud, Nyang'oro and Crowder were the perpetrators, and the students—athletes and non-athletes alike—were the victims (at least for the forged signatures). Contrary to the proclamations of UNC detractors, even the forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes, when examined in context, do not provide evidence of a fraudulent scheme to keep athletes eligible for competition.

What Did Athletics and Academic Support Staff Know?

Again, no evidence has shown Athletics and Academic Support staff knew about the forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes, but much ado has been made about McCants's and Willingham's allegations that Athletics and Academic Support staff knew about Nyang'oro's substandard classes. My response is twofold: "Duh," and, "So what?"

Of course, not all the staff would have known (e.g., I believe Coach Williams's contention that he was unaware), but those who did, especially those who arrived years after the substandard classes had started, had no reason to believe a department chairperson was not within his rights to conduct his classes however he deemed appropriate. When I first arrived on campus three years ago, I was told by multiple people that this is a faculty-run campus and that faculty members' autonomy is incontestable. 

In fact, Former Gov. Martin attributed Nyang’oro’s misconduct to an abuse of that autonomy. Earlier this year, The Chronicle echoed that sentiment, in a story documenting the manifestations and consequences of unchecked faculty autonomy at UNC during Nyang’oro’s tenure. According to The Chronicle, Nyang’oro, as the AFAM/AFRI chairperson, had even less supervision than most faculty members. His two five-year performance reviews were so lax they were essentially meaningless, despite his failing to submit his course syllabi in time to be included in the university’s review of curricula and his being listed as the instructor on record for 10 – 15 courses per year. Considering the absolute autonomy he had over his teaching, I would not be surprised if Nyang’oro himself believed he was within his rights to conduct lecture classes as independent studies at his leisure. Regardless of his justification, Athletics and Academic Support staff, well aware of the faculty’s fervid defense of their autonomy, had no reason to question whether Nyang’oro was within his rights. Accordingly, Athletics and Academic Support staff had no reason to suspect impropriety or to report classes they understood simply as less demanding than typical UNC classes.

Although in hindsight, and with data from the Martin Report available, one can clearly see Nyang'oro substandard classes evinced malpractice, Athletics and Academic Support staff cannot be expected to be the arbiters of academic misconduct. That is the job of the deans. The deans' tacit approval of Nyang'oro's substandard classes for over a decade gave Athletics and Academic Support Staff, especially those who arrived years after the classes had started, solid reason to believe Nyang'oro was within his rights to conduct his classes however he preferred. Thus, if anyone beyond Nyang'oro and Crowder is to be blamed for the scandal, the deans of Arts & Sciences warrant that blame. 

In summary, Nyang’oro’s infamous “term paper classes” undoubtedly failed to meet UNC’s standards for “outstanding, research-based, academically rigorous undergraduate curricula.” However, as substandard as they were, and as embarrassing as their history is for the university, Nyang’oro’s classes were not necessarily fraudulent, and more athletes’ transcripts would not prove one way or the other. The most relevant truth in the transcripts is the confirmation that for over a decade some athletes—and even more non-athletes—enrolled in substandard classes conducted by a department chairperson who received two five-year re-appointments during the same period. Again, the truth about the origins of the substandard classes is nowhere but in the testimonies of Nyang'oro and Crowder.


Mary Willingham's oft-repeated claim that "profit" athletes do not receive a "real" education is true to an extent. It is true for the handful of academically capable athletes, like Rashad McCants and Michael McAdoo, who squander their educational opportunity in pursuit of riches. McCants, by all accounts a capable student, was so dismissive toward his education he failed multiple classes in a single semester. McAdoo, likewise dismissive, plagiarized a paper he knew would be graded leniently. Both former athletes, and the few others like them, did not receive a real education for one reason: they did not want a real education as much as they wanted the fame and wealth associated with professional athletics. 

In other words, contrary to Willingham's rhetoric, a real education is as much the responsibility of the students as it is the responsibility of the educators. The educators with whom I have worked at UNC took their responsibility seriously. McCants and McAdoo, on the other hand, did not take their responsibility seriously. That is one truth McCants's transcript does confirm.

Yet Willingham has continued to deny and obfuscate, just as Andre Wakefield has. In an excellent piece on Wakefield's "crash and burn," New York Times writer Susan Dominus propounds, 

For Wakefield, the attacks have become a kind of affirmation. The more he must defend his research, the more important he seems to consider it—so important that powerful forces have conspired and aligned against him. He said he believes that “they”—public-health officials, pharmaceutical companies—pay bloggers to plant vicious comments about him on the Web. [. . .] Having been rejected by mainstream medicine, Wakefield, the son of well-regarded doctors in Britain, has apparently rejected the integrity of mainstream medicine in return.

In her "farewell" to UNC and in her last interview on WRAL, Willingham displayed a martyr complex similar to Wakefield's. In fact, the above paragraph can be easily revised to describe Willingham's crash and burn:

For Willingham, the attacks have become a kind of affirmation. The more she must defend her research and claims, the more important she seems to consider them—so important that powerful forces have conspired and aligned against her. She said she believes that “they”—UNC officials, Athletics boosters—prompt bloggers to plant vicious comments about her on the Web. Having been rejected by mainstream higher education, Willingham has apparently rejected the integrity of mainstream higher education in return.

If Mary Willingham is the Andrew Wakefield of the UNC scandal, Rashad McCants may be the Jenny McCarthy. After her modeling and acting career had begun slowing down, McCarthy took up the anti-vaccine cause propelled by Wakefield's fraudulent research. In 2007, she published a book about her experience raising a son with autism, and a few years later the former Playboy model became a co-host on The View.

McCants told Outside the Lines he, too, is writing a book about his experience. Who knows? If he gets it published, perhaps he will win a permanent seat right next to McCarthy, as the first male co-host on The View. I am sure Dan Kane would be there to write a Pulitzer-worthy story all about it.

Update, June 18: In the original version of this essay, I wrote, "Since 2011, when former UNC football player Michael McAdoo’s plagiarized paper raised questions about Nyang’oro’s classes, the university, contrary to the media’s narrative, has diligently investigated the apparent misconduct and potential academic fraud."  I revised that statement to read, "Since 2011, after  fastidious NC State fans discovered significant plagiarism in a publicized paper written by former UNC football player Michael McAdoo, the university, contrary to the media’s narrative, has diligently investigated the apparent misconduct and potential academic fraud involving Nyang'oro and Crowder."

Update July 2: In the original version of this essay, I criticized Kane for the title of one of his articles. I have since updated the essay to reflect the fact that editors typically choose the titles.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to my friend Michael Pogoloff, who originally suggested the comparison between Willingham and Wakefield.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Fool's Argument: Jay Smith's Poor Defense of Willingham's Research

“The fool who knows his folly
Becomes wise by that fact.
But the fool who thinks he's wise—
He's called 'a fool' indeed!”
― The Buddha 
“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” ― Benjamin Franklin

Jay Smith should stop speaking for Mary Willingham. Although he is clearly more articulate than she in general, he nonetheless reveals his glaring ignorance of educational assessment whenever he comments on the subject. I would never engage Smith in a debate about French monsters. For his own sake, he should likewise refrain from engaging me in a debate about educational assessment. His attempts thus far have only made him look like a fool. More clearly than any of Smith’s previous statements, his latest blog entry illustrates his failure to grasp the nuances of the debate over Willingham’s research, and his pretense of understanding amounts to nothing more than sophistry.

Friday, May 16, 2014

How Will Dan Kane Report Our Conversation?

Late this afternoon I got an email from Dan Kane asking if he could talk with me about Mary Willingham's research application. So I called him.

Through the course of our conversation, we covered several issues related to the UNC scandal. I felt confident that I answered most of Kane's questions with evidence and reason, and I even challenged some of the insinuations he has made in his reporting.

However, Kane did cause me to stumble on one question. He asked whether I doubted Willingham was a whistleblower, and I explained that I believed she had not revealed any information that he had not already uncovered. He countered that, in fact, after he had reported on the suspicious AFAM classes, she contacted him with details about those classes. The information she provided, he explained, prompted him to investigate further, leading to his uncovering the evidence of the "paper" classes Julius Nyang'oro had been offering for over a decade. Given that information, did I still doubt she was a whistleblower?

Admittedly, for a moment, I felt more like Rick Perry than President Obama. I was unsure how to respond, and so I told Kane I would have to look at the history again.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Summary of Mary Willingham's False Testimony

Last week, after Mary Willingham announced she would be testifying at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on the well-being of college athletes, a quiet, grassroots campaign was launched to inform the senators on that committee about Willingham's questionable credibility and the sensationalized media coverage of her claims. Making myself available for counter-testimony, I composed the below statement and sent it to people I believed could get it into the hands of the decision-makers. Although I cannot confirm that my statement in any way influenced the decision to rescind Willingham's invitation to testify, I have reason to believe my statement was seen by the right people.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Please Proceed, Dr. Cramer

In my last blog entry, I refrained from naming the retired faculty member who has been accosting me with emails composed of cunning attempts to defend Mary Willingham's fraudulent claims. However, despite my admonishment that he use my private email address, his pestering me at my UNC address continued Wednesday, and both his obstinacy and his course of action resulting thereof have compelled me to forgo my previous withholding of his name. Elliot Cramer's belligerent emails and pathetic attempt on his blog to expose me as self-contradictory have left me exasperated, and I hope to block his emails permanently after this week.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Even Scholars Can Demonstrate Confirmation Bias

In early March, a retired UNC faculty member contacted me to quibble over my critique of Mary Willingham's research. After a few emails back and forth, I became exasperated by his blind doggedness and therefore halted my correspondence. Last week, he emailed me again and included a letter he sent to the three independent reviewers of Willingham's data. The letter, available at this link, illustrates the shrewd reasoning and the clever manipulation of numbers only an adroit scholar could exhibit when desperate to defend an argument. I could not even read past the first section before tiring of the sly, though fallacious, deductions. One not acquainted with the jargon of educational assessment may be snookered by his contentions, but I am a more knowledgeable reader than most, as are the reviewers themselves.