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.

Hodding Carter and Harry Watson

Last Friday, for the first time in my three years as a UNC employee, I was embarrassed to be associated with this university. My embarrassment, however, was not due to the improprieties of a few well-meaning individuals between 1993 and 2011 or in response to the sensational headlines following the Wainstein Report. No, my embarrassment was in response to the cowardice, hypocrisy, and pretentiousness of some outspoken faculty members, most notably Hodding Carter and Harry Watson. 

At the Faculty Council meeting that day, those two men, more than anyone else, displayed an impudent bias against athletics and an audacious disregard for measured, scholarly analysis of the Wainstein Report. Forget reading the Report with the same scrutiny they and dozens of other faculty members in the humanities teach students to employ when reading texts—particularly texts written by powerful white men. Carter, Watson, and others clearly had rushed to appropriate whatever assertions and phrases they could find in the Report to confirm and champion their already entrenched anti-athletics bias. In other words, while maintaining the guise of scholars, the faculty members claiming the Wainstein Report as a moral victory over athletics were actually behaving more like benighted partisans, undermining the enlightened citizenship for which institutions of higher learning stand.

Before Watson initiated the grandstanding, he allowed a few other faculty members to speak and to establish the general sentiment that athletics was primarily, if not entirely, to blame for the paper class scandal. Then, representing the A-ARG, Watson began his denunciation of athletics and presented a list of the A-ARG's demands to the University.

I will address the cowardice and hypocrisy underscoring the A-ARG's demands, below, but first I want to address Carter's ridiculous diatribe that followed. Soon after the Chancellor and the Provost responded to Watson, Carter alleged that the UNC administration vilified Jay Smith, but, of course, Carter provided no examples of such vilification. That is because there are none. Yes, I have vilified Smith—after his intellectually dishonest defense of Mary Willingham's research, his emailing the Provost to accuse me of being mentally unstable, and his petty accusation that I plagiarized him—but I am not part of the administration, and, frankly, Smith has deserved it.

Even more absurd, Carter characterized the administration's dealings with Willingham as Nixonian, which he summed up as, "Go away, you miserable little bitch." Again, Carter could provide no examples of such behavior because there are none. To the contrary, as I have documented, the Provost made an earnest effort to hear Willingham's case, but she resisted. (In fact, I recently obtained another email exchange, in which Willingham resists an Athletics official's earnest attempts to hear her case.) Carter is a master of grandiloquent speech, but his rhetoric is hollow and impresses only the gullible.

Failed Oversight?

With Carter's rancor behind us, I can now return to Watson and the A-ARG's asinine demands. The A-ARG's first demand, that "head coaches, deans, faculty athletics representatives, and compliance officials" explain their failed oversight to the faculty, epitomizes the A-ARG's hypocrisy. Although the deans are included in that list, three of the four groups are associated with Athletics, and the list thereby reflects the A-ARG's clear assumption that the paper class scandal was primarily the fault of Athletics. However, no administrative failure in the paper class scandal was as egregious as the negligence displayed by former Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Bobbi Owen.

Owen was an autocratic micromanager who led by intimidation. When I was interested in another job on campus, three separate people told me they believed she had interfered with other people's career advancement, and one of those people suggested Owen may attempt to interfere with mine. Prior to that, during Summer 2012, Owen wanted to meet with me to chastise me about an interview I had given to The Chronicle of Higher Education. During the interview, I had described my job as serving academically underprepared student-athletes. Owen admonished me to replace the term "underprepared students" with the euphemism "students with special talents." Later during our meeting, I proposed to her that the University establish a study skills course to help these "students with special talents." She responded, as my colleagues warned me she would, that such a course would not be in the interest of the University because most UNC students do not require instruction in study skills. Now that she is no longer an administrator, however, UNC is in the process of establishing such a course, which will be available to all students beginning next school year.

More relevant to the topic at hand, Owen had the knowledge and the power to intervene in the paper class scandal on multiple occasions, but she failed to do so. In 2005 or 2006, Owen became aware that Julius Nyang'oro was the instructor of record for more than 300 independent studies in a single year (which was at the same time he was also regularly scheduled to teach 10 15 lecture classes per year). Owen's only response, however, was to direct him to reduce the numbers (Wainstein, p. 21)

On another occasion, Associate Dean of Advising Carolyn Cannon apprised Owen of excessive grade changes and discrepancies between signatures on the grade forms from Nyang'oro's classes. Again, Owen merely reprimanded Nyang'oro, choosing not to investigate further (Wainstein, p. 69).

Furthermore, and most important, when an Athletics official approached Owen about the propriety of the paper classes, Owen assured him that faculty members may teach however they choose (Wainstein, p. 104). That message of academic freedom is the same one I received when I first arrived at UNC in Fall 2011, and it is one of the primary reasons no one from Athletics or ASPSA persisted with questions about the paper classes.

Owen had enough knowledge and, as Senior Associate Dean, enough power to intervene as early as 2005 or 2006, but she failed to do so. Equally egregious (or perhaps more so) was her failure, in 2011, to report what she knew to Senior Associate Deans Jonathan Hartlyn and William Andrews, who conducted the original investigation into the paper classes. Had Owen come forward then, UNC may have been spared three years of negative news coverage and the millions dollars spent on subsequent investigations.

Yet Watson and the A-ARG did not highlight Owen's failure, nor are they demanding she provide an explanation for her failed oversight. They blame and disparage Athletics, despite the fact that Owen acknowledged the Athletics official's due diligence. Did I mention that Jay Smith's supervisor when he was Associate Dean of Curricula was none other than Owen? The A-ARG is populated by cowards and hypocrites who hastily cast aspersions on Athletics but willfully ignore the transgressions of administrators and faculty members in their own college.

Apology to Willingham?

Beyond, and more appalling than, the A-ARG's hypocrisy regarding the administrative failures that allowed the paper class scandal to persist, the A-ARG faculty members promote a perverted set of ethics when they demand the University apologize to Mary Willingham. To assert that the Wainstein Report vindicates Willingham is to justify human subjects research that exploits human subjects for whatever purpose the researcher believes to be for the greater good. Willingham's contribution to the CNN story that made her famous required her to do the following: (1) conduct research on UNC athletes without obtaining informed consent, (2) violate the athletes' federally protected privacy rights, (3) lie about the stated purpose of her research, and (4) publicize fabricated findings. Yet because her actions generated enough media attention to compel the University to commission the Wainstein investigation, the A-ARG and others believe her actions were justified. The grossly distorted utilitarian ethics underlying such justification is actually exactly the ethics against which federal laws and guidelines are designed to protect human subjects. The A-ARG's defense of Willingham thus sets a dangerous precedent.

I can only surmise how the A-ARG can espouse such ethics, but perhaps their ethics reflect the fact that the most outspoken members are historians, whose methodologies rarely involve human subjects research (and, some would say, are epistemologically tenuous). Other faculty members, from disciplines that involve robust human subjects research, should be challenging the A-ARG's ethics. Unfortunately, however, one retired faculty member who should know better has continued his intellectually dishonest campaign to defend Willingham's research. Elliot Cramer's clamor at the Faculty Council meeting echoed his letter to the DTH editor published the same day. Here is the full text: 
What former North Carolina governor Jim Martin said “was not an athletic scandal” IS an athletic scandal far worse than anyone could have imagined
Clearly the need for these paper classes was that UNC admitted many athletes, primarily football players, were so poorly prepared academically that they could not possibly succeed at UNC. This was exposed by Mary Willingham and confirmed by current UNC learning specialist Bradley Bethel in a private letter to the Chancellor. 
Willingham has been vilified by many, including Provost Jim Dean, who called her research “a travesty.” He compounded this by enrolling outside experts without providing them with full information, as I have learned from correspondence with them. This was a whitewash by the administration. He and the University owe Willingham an apology and a return to her original position.
I am exasperated by the continued need to refute Willingham's findings, but I feel I must do so as long as Cramer persists in abusing his status as a professor emeritus of psychology. Therefore, I responded in the comments as follows:
The experts who reviewed Willingham's data had all the data they needed to make a determination about reading levels. The experts had the scores from the SATA Vocabulary subtest, and the only other SATA subtests that Willingham used were the Writing Mechanics and Math Calculation subtests. Neither of those two subtests have any bearing on calculating reading levels. Elliot Cramer is displaying intellectual dishonesty when he asserts otherwise. 
Furthermore, I never confirmed Willinghmam's specific claims, as Cramer suggests. I did state that UNC had admitted too many academically underprepared athletes in the past, and I stand by that statement. However, that is not the same as confirming Willingham's grossly inflated statistics and embellished anecdotes. Cramer is desperate to make me appear self-contradictory, but his rants are nothing more than the bluster of a jaded former scholar whose relevancy faded long ago.
The only assessment data that would have allowed the external reviewers to conduct a more sound evaluation of the athletes' reading levels would have been scores from the SATA Reading Comprehension subtest, but Willingham never administered that subtest to the athletes she studied. In addition, as I have explained numerous times, contrary to Willingham's assertions, ACT/SAT scores are irrelevant to her claims because ACT/SAT scores cannot be converted into grade equivalents, nor can they be combined with other test scores to generate grade equivalents. Quite simply, Willingham fabricated her findings.

Even if the Wainstein Report demonstrated pervasive corruption in Athletics—which it does not—one would still have no grounds to say the Report vindicates Willingham. Her research is still, as the Provost described it, a travesty. Furthermore, despite the media's continued claim to the contrary, the University's internally commissioned Hartlyn-Andrews Report, not Willingham, uncovered the existence of the paper classes.

The University does not owe Willingham an apology, and making such an apology would undermine the integrity of the University as a research institution.

Vacating Championships and Dissolving ASPSA?

The A-ARG believes that ASPSA is collectively guilty of knowingly participating in academic fraud, warranting the vacating of championships and the elimination of ASPSA itself. Keep in mind that ASPSA is the same office Willingham described, in the 2007 Annual Report, as "a learning community that supports the needs of students," which is exactly as I would describe it in my three years here. Yet because a small fraction of ASPSA staff members crossed a line years ago, the A-ARG asserts we should be shut down. Such reasoning exemplifies the composition fallacy, whereby one assumes that the part of an entity represents the whole of the entity. Wainstein identified only three ASPSA staff members who admitted to crossing the line when tutoring students in the paper classes (p. 56), and he identified only two staff members who emailed Debbie Crowder lists of suggested grades for students in the paper classes (p. 67). Critical to note, in both cases, is that one of the staff members was Jan Boxill, who was only a part-time counselor but a full-time faculty member. Characterizing ASPSA according to the actions of a fraction of the staff members is fallacious and no different than characterizing the AAAD Department according to the actions of Crowder and Nyang'oro.

Yet Watson and other A-ARG members may counter that Wainstein elsewhere states that "several of the ASPSA counselors were knowingly complicit in Crowder’s paper class scheme" (p. 64). Yes, Wainstein stated that, but perhaps we should read the Report through the same critical lens Watson, Smith, and other humanities professors teach students to read any historical document. Perhaps we should ask critical questions about the language used in the Report and whether the Report is internally consistent. For example, although Wainstein alleges several counselors were knowingly complicit, other statements in the Report suggest otherwise:

  • "ASPSA counselors explained that they simply relied on the fact that the classes were seemingly sanctioned by the faculty, or at least by the AFAM faculty. They believed it was not their place to question the integrity of classes that the faculty deemed appropriate to list on the course register, especially given that these were open to and taken by non-athletes as well as student-athletes" (p. 67).
  • "[Brent] Blanton knew about the paper classes, which he said that he and others in ASPSA considered the same as independent studies. Blanton knew Crowder and would call or email to ask her for help with his students, but he did not know that Crowder was grading papers or that there was no faculty oversight" (p. 117).
  • "[Beth] Bridger said that she learned about the paper courses during her first semester at Chapel Hill. She recalled that she asked [Cynthia] Reynolds about the courses, and Reynolds explained that the classes did not meet. Instead, Reynolds explained, the professor would run the class by giving students an assignment to complete over the course of the semester" (p. 118). 
  • "[Jaimie] Lee stated her view that the paper classes provided an opportunity to work on the building blocks of a research paper, such as how to write a thesis statement, how to create an abstract, how to conduct research, and ultimately, how to do critical analysis" (p. 119).
  • "[Wayne] Walden was aware of the paper classes and thought they had been approved by the University because they were open to all students. Walden said that he tried to limit the number of enrollments in the paper classes for the students Williams recruited. He explained that he wanted to avoid developing a culture that depended on these classes, preferring the structure of a regular lecture course. Walden did not know Nyang’oro, but he would work with Crowder to enroll his students in AFAM and AFRI classes. He knew that students enrolled in paper classes had no contact with faculty, and he said that he thought Crowder was probably doing some of the grading, though he never knew for sure. Walden did not feel that there was anything wrong with these courses, however, because they were open to and taken by regular students in addition to student-athletes" (pp. 122 123).

To have been knowingly complicit in Crowder's scheme would have entailed knowing that she was organizing the classes without Nyang'oro's approval and supervision. With the possible exceptions of Boxill and Reynolds (the two who emailed Crowder with suggestions for students' grades), none of the academic counselors knew Crowder was acting on her own accord, nor did they believe their recommending the paper classes was wrong.

Most of the former ASPSA staff with whom I have spoken believed Nyang'oro was approving and supervising the process, and they had no reason to believe otherwise. He was the instructor of record and the Department Chair. Furthermore, the apparent approval from Boxill and others assured ASPSA staff the classes were legitimate. To a low-level employee, such as an academic counselor, no one would appear more qualified to evaluate the propriety of a academic practice than the Director of the University's Center for Ethics and eventual Chair of the Faculty Council. With the exception of Boxill and Reynolds (and the late Burgess McSwain), all the academic counselors came to UNC more than a decade after the paper classes started; all those academic counselors observed Boxill and others recommend the paper classes; all those academic counselors understood that faculty have extensive academic freedom to conduct their classes however they deem appropriate; and all those counselors believed and trusted that Nyang'oro, the Department Chair, was approving and supervising the process.

Accuse those academic counselors of being naïve low-level employees. Accuse them of not asking enough questions. Accuse them of trusting the College's administrative processes too much. Do not, however, accuse them of knowingly participating in academic fraud. Neither the A-ARG nor Wainstein himself has provided sufficient evidence to support such an accusation.

In the words of UNC alum and higher education expert Michael Harris, Watson and the rest of the A-ARG should sit down and shut up.


The academic counselors with whom I have had the privilege of working the past three years have been among the most committed educators I have ever encountered. They consistently work—or, for those who were terminated, worked—more than 60 hours per week to ensure student-athletes have the resources and support they need to develop their academic skills and experience a meaningful education. Again, Willingham herself described ASPSA best when she wrote, "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." 

Listening to faculty members declare otherwise at the Faculty Council meeting last week was more than I could bear. Standing quietly in the back of the room, I was embarrassed to be associated with the same institution that employs Harry Watson, Jay Smith, and Hodding Carter. Although those men may have been scholars worthy of our admiration in the past, they have recently reduced themselves to pretentious blowhards infatuated with the sound of their own voices.

Although I am not a basketball fan, and I am in fact highly critical of the NCAA, I will defend the integrity and commitment to student well-being of the vast majority of UNC Athletics and ASPSA staff members and administrators from recent years. I feel honored to be associated with the same institution that previously employed Dick Baddour, John Blanchard, Beth Bridger, Joe Holladay, Jaimie Lee, Robert Mercer, and Wayne Walden and that currently employs Brent Blanton, Bubba Cunningham, Larry Fedora, Corey Holliday, and Roy Williams, among many others.

I am Bradley Bethel, and I am still proud to be a Tar Heel.