Mary C. Willingham, a learning specialist who blew the whistle on academic fraud at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is promoting a book she co-wrote about the scandal. In a recent conversation with The Chronicle, Ms. Willingham talked about how the scandal highlighted what she said are larger problems in the world of big-time college sports, warning that “the athletic machine is in charge of the university." Ms. Willingham also discussed her efforts to expose the fraud at Chapel Hill, how colleges could do more to help athletes get a meaningful education, and her advice for others who see problems similar to the ones that arose at UNC.
BRAD WOLVERTON: Hi, I'm Brad Wolverton. I'm here today with Mary Willingham, a former Learning Specialist at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She's got a new book along with Jay Smith that looks at the academic scandal there. Mary, so a lot of blame to go around at UNC. Tell me, where did you see the biggest breakdowns?
MARY WILLINGHAM: Wow, I think the biggest breakdown was just the fact that this system of eligibility for athletes went on for more than 20 years. It's amazing that so many people were involved, both on the athletic and on the academic side. But it was really steered by the athletic department. That's where it started. It started with a Learning Specialist just like myself, Burgess McSwain, since deceased. So we weren't able to talk to her. It was definitely a case of trying to keep under prepared athletes eligible and able to play on the hardwood floors. It started with basketball. It's unfortunate.
BRAD WOLVERTON: I was interested in the portrayals in the book, and the faculty at UNC didn't come off as being painted in too negative of a light. What was that all about?
MARY WILLINGHAM: Well, I mean, I think it's an interesting thing to play the blame game, because it's just a system. It's a system that's controlled by the NCAA and its member institutions. And I think that what's happened in our division one athletic programs across the country is the athletic machine is in charge of the university. And so the faculty have lost control there, and it's sad.
About This Series
The Chronicle’s On Leadership video series explores various aspects of campus leadership with movers and shakers across academe. The series is hosted by Chronicle editors and reporters. Visit our complete collection of interviews.
BRAD WOLVERTON: So you were there in the athletic department for six or seven years before you came forward and talked about this fraud. What took you so long to talk about it?
MARY WILLINGHAM: Well, I did talk about the fraud on the inside, trying to make changes from the inside. And I even feel that I tried to go up the chain in an appropriate human resource kind of way. But it was clear to me that it was a cover-up. And the real losers in all of it are not the faculty, or the administrators, or the NCAA, the real losers are the students themselves. And that's who I'm supposed to be hired to serve, that's who I'm serving. And so, really, I did an injustice myself to those students for many years. And I just decided that it was time to tell the story, and maybe it'll make a difference, I don't know. I need other people to stand up with me and tell this story, because it's happening all over the country.
BRAD WOLVERTON: One of the things, one of the main themes you write about, is the exploitation of black athletes. And there's obviously a lot of racial tensions now on college campuses. How could colleges do sort of a better job of confronting racism and particularly helping black athletes get a lot more meaningful education?
MARY WILLINGHAM: Yeah, I mean it's sad in this country. No, racism is alive and well. I truly believe that and certainly in North Carolina, we've got some serious problems. Were so afraid. We're afraid to even have these conversations. I'm hopeful that this next generation, this generation of students now and after will be more open to having the conversation. But the bottom line is, that we have a group of people in this country, black males, who are not getting the public education that we promised them, K12, and they're not part of our economy either. So we really need to focus there, and spend some time trying to figure out how we can make intentional changes with that particular problem. And it starts all the way back in kindergarten.
BRAD WOLVERTON: So if you were in an athletic department right now, worked in academic services somewhere, and you saw some bad stuff going on, what would you do? What advice would you give to people who see things like you saw?
MARY WILLINGHAM: Well, I mean, I would first go and report the problems to my boss and to the athletic director, and try to get in touch with the provost or the chancellor and let them know. And remind them of the North Carolina case, and how it really should have been handled right away from the very beginning in 2010. And we wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation now if it had been handled that way.
And if that doesn't work, I'd say make sure that you get evidence, because we need the facts. We need full disclosure and transparency, and the only way to get that is from looking at the transcripts and you can de-identify them. I've never identified a student. We didn't do it in our book Cheated, and I didn't do it during all the time that I've been speaking out. There's no reason to do that. Everything can be de-identified, and we can see what's really happening when we look at the transcripts.
BRAD WOLVERTON: You spent a lot of time here in Washington in recent months, what's next for you?
MARY WILLINGHAM: Well, I have a literacy program that I'd like to get back to. I'd like to be able to do a platform, an online platform, that reaches back to fourth, fifth grade middle schoolers who are playing sport, and that's most kids that are playing sport at that age, and try to see if we can bring up some basic reading and writing skills to help these young people get prepared for a real education, the real education that they deserve.
There's also a potential for the President's Commission. I'm working with the Drake Group still. There's another group of faculty now, Care, that have gotten together. Jay Smith, my co-author and I are also always writing on our blog and talking about what we think could potentially happen. We'd both like to visit universities and colleges across the campus and share the information that we write about in Cheated. And it's possible that we have a movie deal, and that'd be very exciting. So just make so many more people have access to this story so that the conversation can continue to grow.
BRAD WOLVERTON: Thanks for joining us today, Mary.
MARY WILLINGHAM: Thanks for having me.