Saturday, August 2, 2014

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

Oh, the irony.

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

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

Ironically, Willingham's master's thesis—written in 2009, several years after the "cut-and-paste job" that so unsettled her—appears to be somewhat of a "cut-and-paste job" itself.

When a commenter on the Inside Carolina message boards raised a question about the disparate quality between Willingham's thesis and her subsequent writings, other members started scrutinizing her thesis. Within a few hours, several examples of apparent plagiarism were reported on the message boards.

After I was alerted to the surging Schadenfreude on Inside Carolina, I approached the plagiarism allegations with circumspection. Before making a spectacle of the situation, I wanted to be certain the allegations were sound. Thus, I took a three-step approach to confirming Willigham's plagiarism: (1) copy each passage alleged to be plagiarized, (2) locate the passage in Willingham's thesis and examine it in context, and (3) compare the contextualized passage with the source material.

Based on my comparison of Willingham's text with the source material, I can come to no other conclusion: Willingham plagiarized passages of her master's thesis.

Consider, for example, the passage below (from p. 5 of Willingham's thesis). I have bolded the text that is verbatim (or nearly verbatim) from the source material:

Historically, academic standards for student-athletes have been a great area of concern. This was brought to the forefront in the early 1970s. By this point, the effort to set up common standards among the schools had, for the most part, failed. The only agreed upon academic achievement that was required for admission was a high school diploma with a GPA of 2.0 or better.
At the 1983 NCAA convention, in response to the efforts of an ad hoc committee of college presidents that had sought to bring about reform of athletics through the American Council on Education, new academic requirements were adopted. As of 1986, freshmen were not able to participate in sports unless they scored an SAT 700 (verbal and math combined) and a 2.0 high school GPA in 11 core courses. In 1990, the standards changed again to a 14 course rule and now in 2008, a 16 course rule. The current 16 courses must include successful completion of 4 years of English, 3 years of Math, 2 years of Science, 2 years of Social Science and 4 additional years of courses from across the high school curriculum (from any area above, including foreign language and nondoctrinal religion/philosophy).

Now compare Willingham's text with the following paragraph from page 13 of The Game of Life, by Shulman and Bowen, which Willingham cites elsewhere but not for the passage in question. Again, examine the bold text specifically:

Another great battlefront in the regulatory arena concerned academic standards. By the early 1970s, the efforts to set common standards for the eligibility of athletes had, for the most part, failed. The only academic achievement required for admission, for a scholarship, or for competition (from 1873 to 1986) was the requirement that athletes graduate from high school with a GPA of 2.0 or better. At the 1983 NCAA convention, in response to the efforts of an ad hoc committee of college presidents that had sought to bring about reform of athletics through the American Council on Education, new academic requirements were adopted. As of 1986, freshmen were not able to participate in sports unless they had an SAT 700 and a 2.0 high school GPA in 11 core courses. (These requirements were both tightened and made more flexible at the 1992 convention with the adoption of Proposition 16.) Debates then took place over whether the more elaborate regulations were improving graduation rates.

Commenters on Inside Carolina found further examples of apparent plagiarism, in which Willingham includes citations but copies the source materials verbatim without using quotation marks. Such indiscretions may be the result of carelessness rather than intentional misrepresentation, though they are still troubling when committed by someone who spent several years assisting students with English 100.

Yet in one passage Willingham's plagiarism appears to be flagrant. A significant portion of the passage quoted below (pp. 6 – 8) is verbatim from a source she does not cite anywhere in her thesis.

The typical budget in a sports program at any given university is about 32% on salary, 31% on facilities and 18% on scholarship. As of 2006, the largest growing category in the budget was for salary and benefits (Grant, et al., 2008). In 2006, the NCAA entered into an agreement with CBS to televise the men's basketball tournament. At this time, CBS paid the NCAA an average of $545 million per year in tax-free money. The president of CBS Sports was quoted as saying: "There is no more important event at CBS, not just CBS Sports, than the men's basketball championship” (Grant, et al., 2008). The NCAA receives 85% of its revenues from the sale of television rights. Each year, the NCAA distributes more than $100 million from its Basketball Fund to DI institutions. The Football Bowl Series (BCS) has an agreement with the Fox network paying $80 million annually from 2007 – 2010; however, ESPN has out bid them and will pay $125 million per year from 2011 – 2014. These monies are distributed based on performance in the NCAA. Each tournament or bowl victory earns more money for the winning team's athletic conference. The Rose Bowl continues to remain under a separate contract (Fizil and Fort, 2004).
Rewarding athletics instead of academic performance seems to be contradictory to the NCAA's tax-exempt mission, and sends a message to member institutions and athletes that athletics is more important than academics. In 2006, Congress investigated the nonprofit status of the NCAA. The non-profit status is justified (according to the Operating Board) because it supports higher education and the importance of academics. A few questions posed (many questions were asked but never answered) were, why does the NCAA distribute more than $100 million each year based on athletic rather than academic performance? What percentage of NCAA revenue do your member institutions spend solely on academic matters?
Coaches' salaries account for one of the biggest expenses of DI-A athletic departments, according to reports printed in USA Today last year. More than 35 college coaches receive salaries of at least one million dollars per year. Sources of revenue to pay these rising salaries include student fees, corporate sponsorships, and television deals. Paying coaches excessive compensation also makes less revenue available for other sports, causing many athletic departments to operate at a net loss.

Now compare Willingham's text with the following passage from a letter that U.S. Representative Bill Thomas sent to NCAA President Myles Brand in 2006:

The NCAA has entered into an agreement with CBS to televise the men's basketball tournament. According to the terms of the agreement, CBS will pay the NCAA an average of $545 million per year in tax-free money. The president of CBS Sports was quoted as saying, "There is no more important event at CBS, not just CBS Sports, than the men's basketball championship." 
How does the transformation of the NCAA men's basketball championship into commercialized entertainment further the educational purpose of the NCAA and its member institutions? 
The NCAA receives 85% of its revenues from the sale of television rights. What is the influence of television networks on the NCAA's decisions? Please include a description of the influence television networks have on the scheduling of games and on the maximum number of games allowed to be played in a season.
Each year, the NCAA distributes more than $100 million from its Basketball Fund to Division I institutions. These monies are distributed based on performance in the NCAA tournament; each tournament victory earns more money for the winning team's athletic conference. Rewarding athletic instead of academic performance seems to be contradictory to the NCAA's tax-exempt mission, and sends a message to member institutions and athletes that athletics is more important than academics. Why does the NCAA distribute more than $100 million each year based on athletic rather than academic performance?
What percentage of NCAA revenue is spent by your member institutions on solely academic matters?
Coaches' salaries account for one of the biggest expenses of Division I-A athletic departments. According to reports, more than 35 college coaches receive salaries of at least one million dollars per year. Sources of revenue to pay these rising salaries include student fees, corporate sponsorships, and television deals. Paying coaches excessive compensation also makes less revenue available for other sports, causes many athletic departments to operate at a net loss, and may call into question the priorities of educational institutions.

Again, whereas the first example of plagiarism (and others identified on the message boards) could possibly be attributed to negligence—which is misconduct nonetheless—the latter passage appears to demonstrate the willful misrepresentation of the text as Willingham's own words and ideas. Notice that Willingham includes two citations within the passage but that neither of the citations refer to Thomas's letter. Those two citations mislead the reader to believe she is citing her sources consistently and representing her ideas honestly. Upon closer scrutiny, however, we see that her selective citation practices actually help conceal her plagiarism otherwise. Willingham appears to have deliberately and fraudulently presented Thomas's words as her own.

(By the way, one of those two citations is for "Grant, et al., 2008," which Willingham cites 10 times in her thesis. She uses the shorthand "et. al" for each of the in-text citations, but the corresponding bibliographic entry lists only one additional author. According to APA guidelines, "et al." should only be used for in-text citations of sources with three or more authors; therefore, her use is incorrect—well, not exactly. Although Willingham only lists two authors in the bibliographic entry, the book she cites actually has three authors. Furthermore, in her bibliographic entry, she confuses the second author's first and last name. Either she didn't actually read the book, or she is so terrible at citations she should have never been responsible for assisting students in ENGL 100.)

Willingham has consistently embellished her experience working with student-athletes; she fabricated statistics on their reading levels; she lied about her IRB research application; she illicitly accessed athletes' federally protected academic and health records; and now we discover she plagiarized passages of her master's thesis.

Yet Jay Smith contends Willingham is the most ethical person he knows.

Both of them have defrauded the public of the truth and have disgraced the University of North Carolina. The failure of the Arts & Sciences administrators who allowed the so-called "paper classes" to continue for over a decade has been embarrassing enough for the university. Willingham and Smith have done nothing but provide farcical content for the media's sensationalized narrative that has exacerbated the university's embarrassment. When the history of UNC's reforms is written, neither Willingham nor Smith nor their little Athletics Reform Group will be recorded as having made any positive contributions to progress.