Pages

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Lesson in Editing Responsibly

Yesterday a guest blogger published an entry in which he argued that university policies allow for professors to designate grading proxies to grade papers and that such policies would therefore have permitted Deborah Crowder to grade Julius Nyang'oro's papers. Within a half-hour, an expert in higher education noted that standard policies only allow for proxies to enter grades, not actually to do the grading. I immediately added an editor's update with that information. However, I have now decided to remove the blog entry entirely.

Since I began blogging about the controversies at UNC, I have been critical of several journalists and news outlets for publishing unverified claims and spreading inaccurate information. Well, I deserve similar criticism for my publishing of my guest blogger's entry last night. The author and I may have misunderstood the university policy on which he was commenting. As the blog's editor, I should have consulted with an expert before publishing, and I apologize for not doing so.

Removing the blog entry therefore seems like the responsible action for me to take.

Unfortunately, throughout the coverage of the paper-class scandal at UNC, journalists and editors at actual news outlets—each of which has a far greater reach than my blog—have been remiss to act likewise. If Sara Ganim, Paul Barrett, or their editors had consulted with experts in educational assessment, they would have learned that Willingham's vague claims about combining tests results to determine grade equivalents were specious. Furthermore, earlier today, I published an essay demonstrating that much of what Willingham claimed to Ganim last year is contradicted by Willingham's annual reports, which were recently released in response to a public records request.

Will CNN now add an update to each of their stories about Willingham? I am doubtful.

BusinessWeek's and CNN's failure to edit with integrity does not excuse my mistake yesterday. However, I am left wondering why editors who manage the great responsibility of content for actual news outlets seem not to have yet learned the lesson I just learned through merely managing the small responsibility of content for a free blog.

To close, I want to note that my guest blogger made some important points and raised relevant questions. The author's argument regarding grading proxies may have been based on a misunderstanding, but the accepted implications of Crowder's grading should nonetheless be challenged. As I wrote in my editor's note,
Although faculty members should understand the nuances of academic policies, coaches and academic counselors are not familiar with those nuances. In the case of the paper classes, a handful of counselors knew Crowder did some of the grading, but they believed that she was functioning in a similar capacity as a teaching assistant and that Nyang'oro was within his rights to designate her as such. Those counselors explained their understanding to Wainstein and his associates, but Wainstein excluded that information from his report. 
Several news outlets have relentlessly propagated the sensationalized narrative of an athletics scandal at UNC. As more voices emerge to challenge that narrative, will the editors at those outlets be willing to correct and retract previously published stories?

The Truth Is In the Annual Reports

A year ago today, I published "Truth and Literacy at UNC," my first essay challenging Mary Willingham's false claims about UNC athletes. Documents recently released in response to a public records request further demonstrate that Willingham has embellished and fabricated much of her narrative about UNC athletics.


On January 8, 2014, CNN's Sara Ganim featured Mary Willingham in a sensationalized story about college athletes' reading levels. Before accepting her gig at CNN, Ganim was a reporter at The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA), where she won a Pulitzer for her reporting on the Jerry Sandusky scandal. By portraying Willingham as a stalwart whistleblower, Ganim strategically framed her story as another exposé on the corruption within college athletics. She seemed—and has continued to seem—eager to win another Pulitzer.

Ganim, however, chose the wrong person to herald as a whistleblower. Documents recently released profoundly contradict Willingham's claims in Ganim's stories and elsewhere. Rather than hoping for a second Pulitzer, Ganim should just hope her story does not end up cited as another egregious case of media bias.

Willingham's testimony in that original CNN story on college athletes' reading levels centered on her study of "183" UNC athletes. (I put 183 within quotation marks because an external review later determined the number was actually 176.) Most of the athletes were football (FB) and men's basketball (MBB) players, and, according to Willingham, approximately 70% of them read below a high school level. Willingham's statistics have since been repeatedly and summarily disproved, and so I need not elucidate her spurious reasoning again. More important now is her specific claim that she worked personally with the "overwhelming majority" of those "183" mostly FB and MBB players.

The Underwhelming Reality


The documents UNC recently released are documents composed by Willingham herself. They are the annual reports she submitted for the school years 2003-2004 through 2007-2008. Each report provides a breakdown, by sport, of the number of student-athletes with whom Willingham worked one-on-one. (You can access them here.)

Again, Willingham explicitly stated that she worked with the "overwhelming majority" of those "183" mostly FB and MBB players. Furthermore, her narrative, on which she has elaborated elsewhere, suggests that her work with the athletes in her study was on an individualized, personal level: "I can still see the faces of all those young men who left here with either no degree or a degree that’s meaningless to them." However, her annual reports indicate that she likely worked one-on-one with fewer than 50 FB and MBB players during the years her study covered.  

Here is a simplified breakdown of the number of athletes with whom Willingham worked one-on-one each year during her study, according to her annual reports:


FB
MBB
Other
2004-2005
4
0
19
2005-2006
2
3
19
2006-2007
8*
3
12
2007-2008
3
2
18
Total
17
8
68

*Includes football players in supplemental instruction.

Willingham's sample of "183" student-athletes included first-year athletes from the years 2004 – 2012. Because she left her job with the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) in January 2010, she would not have worked with any first-year athletes during the last three years of her study. Therefore, to determine the total number of FB and MBB players with whom she worked one-on-one during the years her study covered, we only need to estimate the numbers for her final two years with ASPSA and add those numbers to the data above.

Rather than average the numbers of FB and MBB players from the data we have for Willingham, I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and use the highest numbers from that data to estimate her numbers for the two years we do not have. Therefore, estimating that she worked with eight FB players and three MBB players in each of her final two years, the total number of FB and MBB players with whom she worked one-on-one during the years her study covered was 47.


FB
MBB
Other
2004-2005
4
0
19
2005-2006
2
3
19
2006-2007
8*
3
12
2007-2008
3
2
18
2008-2009
8**
3**
--
2009-2010
8**
3**
--
Total
33
14
--
Total
47
--
*Includes football players in Supplemental Instruction (SI).

**Estimate based on largest number from available years.

Again, she claimed to have worked with the "overwhelming majority" of the "183" mostly FB and MBB players. The reality, however, is that she likely worked one-on-one with fewer than 50.

With the data from Willingham's annual reports, we can conclusively say that nearly everything she told Ganim was false. If Ganim and CNN have any journalistic integrity, they will, at minimum, add a statement of correction to each of their articles about Willingham.

Jay Smith's Continued Belligerence and Intellectual Dishonesty


When some of this data was recently discussed on the Inside Carolina message boards and Twitter, Jay Smith belligerently challenged his fellow UNC faculty member Andrew Perrin on the evidence:








In a future blog entry, I will demonstrate that Smith is the one with a "hidden personal motivation." For now, Smith's first tweet above is the one of most importance. His argument is that Willingham worked extensively with FB and MBB players in supplemental instruction (SI). However, her annual reports do not support that argument. She describes her primary role in SI most years as training and supervising the tutors, not actually working with the participating student-athletes one-on-one herself. As indicated in the tables above, there was one year she included in her numbers FB players participating in SI. The fact that she included FB players one year but not others suggests that she did not work one-one-one with FB or MBB players participating in SI the other years. Again, her primary responsibility with SI most years was training and supervising the tutors, not working one-on-one with the student-athletes herself.

In other words, Smith has once again offered an intellectually dishonest defense of Willingham's false claims. He continues to be a blight on the University, threatening its intellectual integrity.

Willingham's Clear FERPA Violation


Perhaps the most striking data point in each of the tables above is the number 0 glaring at us from the cell for the 2004-2005 basketball team. We feel its glare because we remember Willingham's infamous tweet:


Willingham clearly accessed and analyzed the 2004-2005 MBB team's grades, yet her annual reports demonstrate she had no right ever to do so, because she never worked with that team.

Jay Smith somehow sees no problem with that. He recently tweeted:


Apparently, Smith believes Willingham's violating students' federally protected privacy is acceptable. However, ethical people disagree with him, and so the public still deserves to know whether he encouraged and/or aided her in the violations.

Willingham's Description of ASPSA as a Supportive Learning Community


Beyond contradicting her testimony regarding her study, Willingham's annual reports also contradict her and Smith's general narrative of pervasive athletics corruption. Smith recently tweeted the following about Willingham:


If "blowing the lid off the ASPSA" means revealing how committed ASPSA's academic counselors and tutors have been to providing student-athletes with a meaningful education, then Smith is right: Willingham's truthful testimony could have blown the lid right off. At the end of her annual report every year, she wrote the following:
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.
Again, Willingham included that statement every year.

Consider also the success rate Willingham documented for the SI program. Three years in a row, she documented that at least 97% of participating athletes—who, by the way, were the most academically at-risk athletes—passed with at least a C in the various classes for which SI was provided. Those classes, important to note, were not paper classes: they included Biology, Economics, Geography, and others.

Willingham also wrote of the "pleasure" she experienced working with Jan Boxill to coordinate the annual faculty event for women's basketball. (Willingham's pleasure in inviting faculty members to athletics events is especially ironic because, in her and Smith's new book, Smith describes such invitations as "soft bribery.") Furthermore, Willingham wrote, "It is also gratifying to help with the graduation reception and celebrate our students success."

Lest Willingham or Smith argue that she was just putting a positive spin on her annual reports to meet workplace expectations, consider an email she sent to a former colleague in ASPSA less than two years ago:
Thank you for the best email of today. Frank Deford emailed me twice today, and I told him about you in the 2nd email- when I dig it out from the pile tomorrow I will forward it to you along with his reply. We are actually in a documentary together - Taylor Branch's 'Schooled- The Price of College Sport'. I never doubted you or that you helped students enormously and selflessly loved them and Carolina. The story of how our UNC athletic system worked/had to work and the dedicated people behind the scenes is nothing short of amazing. You played a role in it and you should be proud - our students (and staff) loved you --because [. . .] you are real. The collegiate sport system (profit sport model) is messed up, not the people (well, maybe some of those guys in Indianapolis). See you soon.
Five years of annual reports plus a fairly recent email to a former colleague suggest that Willingham worked with academic counselors and tutors who "supported the needs of students" and were "nothing short of amazing."

Yet Willingham's public testimony about her colleagues has been nothing short of defamation. She has accused them of tolerating cheating, facilitating plagiarism, and lacking any concern for student-athletes' education. Moreover, Willingham has allowed Smith to embellish her public depictions of ASPSA with the utmost contempt. During a presentation the two of them gave in December, Willingham stood by while Smith castigated her former colleagues, claiming they "came at the [advising] process with one question in mind: ‘Is this course going to help with eligibility or not?’”

That Willingham would betray her former colleagues so heinously reveals how corrupting the allure of the media's attention can be. She clearly saw an opportunity to co-opt the athletics reform movement and shamelessly exploited it. In so doing, she has stabbed her former colleagues in the back and stepped aside to allow Smith to twist the knife.

Conclusion


Willingham's campaign of defamation began when Dan Kane failed to do his job as an investigative journalist. In November 2012, Kane published the first story in which Willingham defamed her former colleagues. To the detriment of a public in need of accurate information, Kane failed to conform to the standards of investigative journalism he himself articulated when later criticizing Jay Bilas's investigative practices. Specifically, Kane failed to focus on details and solicit rich explanations for the claims Willingham made, instead publishing a story riddled with vague assertions and absent clarity. The N&O was obviously determined to establish a protagonist in its burgeoning narrative of an insidious athletics scandal, and we have been dealing with the consequences of the ensuing sensationalism ever since then. 

Unquestionably, Willingham's annual reports demonstrate that her experience was not as she claimed to Kane in November 2012, nor to Ganim in January 2014, nor in her and Smith's book soon to be released. Similar to Brian Williams, Willingham inserted herself into an imagined line of fire and misled the public into believing she was a hero. 

Williams has apologized. Will Willingham do likewise?

Update: Smith has attempted another defense. He tweeted the following:





 First, the percentage to note is approximately 70%, not 60%. According to the CNN article, 
"[Willingham] found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level." Second, even if Willingham meant that she only worked with the "overwhelming majority" of that 70%, her actual number still falls far short of an "overwhelming majority." Seventy percent of 183 is 128, but she likely worked with fewer than 50 FB and MBB players. Smith claims Willingham "easily" worked with the "overwhelming majority," but still no evidence is available to support that claim. Willingham has been embellishing her narrative from the beginning. Try again, Smith.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Taking Coaching the Mind to Film

One of my life goals has been to write for film. A year ago, I had no idea an opportunity to do so would present itself at this point in my life, but that opportunity has come indeed. Yesterday I left UNC, on good terms, to begin working on a feature documentary film that will challenge the popular understanding of the alleged athletics scandal. The decision to leave was difficult, but I made it with the conviction that this film is important and with the hope to return to UNC after the film is completed.

Honestly, I wish my first film could be about another subject, but the media’s continued sensationalism and Jay Smith’s relentless defamation compel me to take this fight to the next level.

Some have asked me why I feel so compelled. After all, the events of the alleged athletics scandal ended before I began working at UNC. Why have I chosen to make this my fight? A story from my childhood will explain. When I was in middle school, there was a bully in my neighborhood. He was not much bigger than me, but for some reason I found him intimidating. One day, my younger, smaller friend and I rode by the neighborhood basketball court, where the bully was playing, and he started chasing after us. He caught up to my friend and punched him in the face, which led to an ugly black eye the next day. I did nothing. I could have gotten off my bike and defended my friend, but I just watched. And for a week I felt cowardly and guilty. I swore to myself that I would never again stand by idly while someone bullied the people I care about.

For over two years after I arrived here in Fall 2011, I felt, at many times, like I felt that day by the neighborhood basketball court. Dan Kane, Sara Ganim, Paul Barrett, and Jay Smith were—and have continued—figuratively punching my former colleagues in the face, and neither I nor anyone else was doing anything to stop them. My first blog entry, on February 24, 2014, was my way of finally punching back.

Unfortunately, the University hired an investigator, Kenneth Wainstein, who, as prosecutors are trained to do, was more committed to building a case than to presenting a fair account of those involved in the now-infamous paper classes. Consequently, the bullies in the media and in the History department now possess more weaponry with which to continue their assault.

Part of me wonders whether I would be generally happier if I had just put my head down and ignored the sensationalism and defamation. But I just could not do that. I could not tolerate feeling like I was back at the neighborhood basketball court, watching my friend get punched in the face. I had to fight back, whether or not anyone else wanted me to do so. I cannot countenance a world in which bullies are given liberty to perpetuate abuse unchallenged. To what extent I can win this fight is impossible to foretell. Regardless, I believe, by at least engaging in it, those bullies and others will have reason to pause before perpetuating such abuse in the future.

Fortunately, I will not be alone. I have an experienced and talented production team committed to transforming this story into an engaging film, and I am confident the final product will challenge viewers to reconsider their position on the alleged athletics scandal.

Last night, I launched the Kickstarter campaign for the film, and, at the time of this writing, the campaign has already raised over $33,000. Clearly, there is a segment of the population not content with the sensationalized narrative perpetuated by reckless journalists and a contemptuous History professor.

Again, I intend for my departure from UNC to be temporary. After the film is completed, I hope to return to the University in some capacity, and I look forward to doing so. I have many colleagues I admire there, and I believe UNC is an institution that will soon re-establish itself as a model for others to follow. I am proud to be a Tar Heel, and I look forward to contributing more to the University's success. 

Although I will miss the student-athletes whom I served the past three and a half years, I know they will be supported well. They have always been supported well by the dedicated academic counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. Those counselors are why the term student-athlete still has meaning.

In closing, I leave you with the words of Abraham Lincoln: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.” Those who have supported me and continue to support me have my word that I will be true and live up to what light I may have.

You can contribute to the Kickstarter here. Thanks in advance for your contribution. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Emails Reveal Disputes Between Jay Smith and Other Faculty Members

Jay Smith's intellectual dishonesty began silently, when the debate over Mary Willingham's "research" was occurring.* However, especially since the Wainstein Report was released, his deviousness has become shrill and persistent, fomenting the media's sensationalism.

As the acting leader of the (Anti-) Athletics Reform Group, Smith's fundamental assertion regarding the paper-class scandal has been that "the demand for fraud in this case clearly came from 'the athletic side' of the campus" and was "set up" by Athletics. Yet that is not clear at all. Not even Wainstein's personal impressions support Smith's assertion. Wainstein surmised, "While Crowder cited compassion as her primary driver, there is no question that her strong love for and identification with the sports program contributed to her willingness to offer paper classes that were disproportionately taken by student-athletes" (p. 44). The key word is "contributed," which is not the same as induced or instigated or triggered. Wainstein quoted Crowder herself saying that she was "passionate about helping struggling students of all kinds," including single mothers (p. 14). The truth is that if UNC had not admitted underprepared student-athletes, Crowder still would have created the paper classes for other struggling students, and we probably would have never learned about those paper classes.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Wainstein's Impressions and Lessons from Serial

"Rather than try to get to the truth, what you're trying to do is build your case and make it the strongest case possible." – Jim Trainum, former homicide detective

Millions of people around the world now believe Adnan Syed was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1999. Last fall, Syed's case captivated listeners and propelled Serial to becoming the most popular podcast in the world. Over the course of 12 episodes, host Sarah Koenig investigated the circumstances of Syed's conviction, the evidence for which seems alarmingly inconclusive. Yet the jury 16 years ago reached their verdict after only two hours of deliberation. Serial's first season is Koenig's attempt to understand how that happened.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Wainstein Report Exam

For the past three weeks, journalists and academic blowhards have run amok in reaction to the Wainstein Report. Brian Barbour and Michael Harris have documented the rancor on the national level, and earlier this week I wrote about the seething hypocrisy of UNC's (Anti-) Athletics Reform Group. Journalistic sensationalism is to be expected, but the intellectually dishonest bluster from some faculty members is unsettling. As historians, several of them surely teach their students to engage texts critically, but they themselves have eschewed their scholarly dispositions and selectively accepted aspects of the Wainstein Report without the slightest hint of critical reading.

For that reason, I have constructed an exam that I am proposing all UNC faculty members require themselves to pass before commenting on the Wainstein Report publicly. Misinformation hinders democratic participation because it undermines our ability to form sound opinions. Hodding Carter, Jay Smith, and Harry Watson have contributed to the spread of misinformation by pontificating on the implications of the Wainstein Report as if they had actually read it closely. I implore them and others to spare us their opinions unless they can pass this exam, which actually should not be difficult. I have made it very easy.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Wainstein Report and the (Anti-) Athletics Reform Group

"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." – Mary Willingham, 2007 Annual Report, Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes
"I never doubted you or that you helped students enormously and selflessly loved them and Carolina. The story of how our UNC athletic system worked/had to work and the dedicated people behind the scenes is nothing short of amazing. You played a role in it and you should be proud - our students (and staff) loved you [. . .]. The collegiate sport system (profit sport model) is messed up, not the people (well, maybe some of those guys in Indianapolis)." – Mary Willingham, email to former academic support staff member, September 4, 2013

Over the course of UNC's 221-year history, few people have left a legacy as moving as Fred Clark's. Widely known as a warmhearted teacher and a compassionate advisor, Clark served Carolina students for 47 years before he passed away in September. He was a Professor in the Romance Languages Department, and he served as the Associate Dean of Academic Services for several years. Nonetheless, the accomplishment of which he was proudest was coordinating the Carolina Covenant Scholars program for students from low-income families, a responsibility he maintained even after he retired. No one can question Clark's commitment to student well-being. He was a true educator and represented the best of higher education.

Several months ago, I heard from a UNC alum and former Covenant Scholar who was one of Clark's advisees. This proud graduate told me how Clark had helped him tremendously when he was a student struggling in school. One of Clark's recommendations was to take an AFAM paper class. So the student enrolled, wrote the paper, earned a good grade, eventually graduated, and has never felt anything but gratitude toward Clark.

In the Wainstein Report released two weeks ago, Clark's knowledge of the paper classes is confirmed:
Clark was aware of the AFAM paper classes at the time that they were offered; his understanding was that they were courses that required a long paper and did not require attendance. Clark explained that that professors do not question other professors’ courses, and so long as a department was offering a course, it was a legitimate course (p. 107).
Clark—who, remember, was an associate dean for several years—regularly recommended the paper classes to struggling students, but no one will dare question his integrity or the sincerity of his commitment to student well-being. Nor should they: he was an example for all faculty members, and we can only hope his legacy will inspire more to emulate him.

Yet if we employ the logic of the (Anti-) Athletics Reform Group (hereafter referred to as A-ARG), the Carolina Covenant program should be dissolved as a result of Clark's recommending the paper classes.