Picture at UNC Just Gets Uglier
S eldom has a whistle made an uglier, more unpleasant sound than the one a UNC employee named Mary Willingham has been blowing lately. But it needed to be heard.
Willingham is a reading specialist who once worked with student-athletes - though one feels like putting the "student" part of that term in quotation marks, considering how much scandal has come to light where Chapel Hill is concerned.
Willingham had apparently resolved to remain silent about her experiences in that regard. But after attending the recent memorial service for former UNC system president Bill Friday - who had long worried about the corrupting influence of big-time, big-money sports on academic integrity - she felt a need to speak out. And her words bore, in Shakespeare's phrase, a decidedly frosty sound.
Largely because of impressive investigative reporting by The News & Observer of Raleigh, the public is now aware of the shameful academic slackness (mostly within the Department of African and African-American Studies Department) that allowed students (mostly athletes) to coast to A's and B's in cushy "lecture" classes that involved few or no lectures. Those revelations, plus others, have cost UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp his job.
But Willingham is the first actual participant in these sickening activities to come forward. Actually, she is a former participant, having previously gotten so sick of what she was seeing around her that she got herself transferred to a different learning center that doesn't work with jocks.
In several recent interviews - again, with The N&O- Willingham said the so-called "paper classes" were already in place when she joined the support program way back in 2003. These non-classes were clearly designed for one purpose: to create charades that would make it possible for totally unqualified "students" to make passing grades in academic classes where they had no business being - just so they could be kept around long enough to help make UNC look better on the playing field.
How unqualified were they? So much so, Willingham said, that some of them had never read a book and didn't know what a paragraph was. After her first experience helping a student with his paper, she was so troubled that she discussed the matter with another staffer. She was told not to make waves, and the student ended up making a B.
It only got worse.
"And if you cannot do the course work here, how do you stay eligible?" she said. "You stay eligible by some department, some professor, somebody who gives you a break. That's everywhere across the country. Here it happened with paper classes. There's no question."
The university has separated academic support operations from the Department of Athletics and increased controls in other ways. But more must be done to restore a proper sense of values, to make crystal-clear that this kind of abuse is no longer tolerable - and to begin restoring the once-hallowed image of the UNC system, which has been badly and inexcusably tarnished.
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