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Dorm Report: UNC whistleblower has lasting effect

By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Basketball Editor

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - We may never know the depths to which the University of North Carolina academic scandal reaches, but one thing is for certain: Mary Willingham will not be around to see first-hand what her research has wrought.

Willingham, a reading specialist at the prestigious institution who works in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, stirred up quite a bit of controversy when she raised the issue of academic fraud among student- athletes. This week, after months of being labeled as the whistleblower in this current investigation, Willingham told the Associated Press that she intends to resign at the end of the semester.

In a nutshell, Willingham told CNN in January that her research of 183 football and basketball players between 2004 and 2012 showed as many as 60 percent of those individuals had a reading level between fourth and eighth grade. Even more shocking, she said as many as 10 percent of those studied were functioning at a reading level below third grade and were still allowed to remain on campus and earn the Tar Heels a few more bucks with their play.

On Monday, Willingham met with UNC chancellor Carol Folt about the issues and came to the conclusion that she and the school have different agendas.

"She (Folt) has a job to do and I hope that she does the right thing -- academics should be in charge of this great university, not athletics," Willingham noted.

Where there's smoke, you can usually expect fire, but when three outside experts hired by UNC did their own digging around, the reports they issued earlier this month failed to confirm the drastic claims made by Willingham. One of the experts estimated about 7 percent of athletes from Willingham's research read at fourth- to eighth-grade levels. That's not nearly as dramatic, but how is that still acceptable?

Even if Willingham's numbers cannot be completely substantiated by independent research, what is an acceptable number for near-illiterate athletes?

To lend some perspective to the stats found at UNC, a study done by the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute of Literacy dated about this time last year, the number of U.S. adults who read below a fifth-grade level is a staggering 21 percent. Now you have to wonder how many of those people own a phantom diploma from a reputable college or university.

Willingham, who wrote a thesis back in 2009 titled "Academics & Athletics - A Clash of Cultures: Division I Football Programs," could be seen as someone with a chip on her shoulder but, more likely, the person who has nudged open the floodgates to a major problem for higher education and athletics far and wide.

This is not an issue exclusive to the University of North Carolina, the ACC or even Division I programs, it happens everywhere whether we want to admit it or not. Even in elementary, middle and high schools, kids (not necessarily "students") are pushed through the system because that is the path of least resistance. There might be a well-intended adult somewhere along the line who wants to do the right thing, but maintaining the status quo seems to make it easier on everyone involved at the time.

The big difference between youngsters and college athletes is that the latter are earning their schools a pretty penny and that is much more of an incentive to keep quiet.

To date, the only major fallout at UNC has been the indictment of Julius Nyang'oro, the former department chair of the African and Afro-American Studies department. Nyang'oro, an internationally respected scholar, was the professor for a lecture course called "AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina" back in the summer of 2011, and of the 19 undergraduates who enrolled in the class all but one were members of the UNC football team.

University and law-enforcement officials claim the class never met and was considered a "paper class," treated as independent studies and designed to keep athletes academically eligible. Requiring only a research paper, one that was probably handled by someone other than the actual student in many cases, AFAM has become the poster-child for academic fraud at UNC.

Nyang'oro was paid $12,000 to attach his name to the academic apparition, one that earned him a grand jury indictment with the charges of "unlawfully, willfully and feloniously" accepting payment "with the intent to cheat and defraud" the university.

The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., reports that a pair of investigations, one internal and one conducted by a former governor of North Carolina, James G. Martin, identified hundreds of unauthorized grade changes dating back as far as 1997. Nyang'oro has been accused of "conducting" countless questionable classes and overseeing a department that routinely changed grades and forged signatures in order to keep athletes eligible during his tenure.

Since resigning, Nyang'oro, who joined the UNC faculty in 1988, has done little to defend himself, which is cause to believe this situation is far more reaching than just one man.

UNC would like nothing more than to just have these allegations go away quietly, just like Nyang'oro, but as long as there are Mary Willinghams out there willing to put themselves on the line for the greater good, college sports will never be completely untouchable.

So, go ahead and form this committee and that council to investigate alleged academic fraud. Bring in your own independent investigators, the ones cashing paychecks from the coffers of (insert your university here) to give us their unbiased perspective on the matter. Circle the wagons and confuse onlookers with litigious gobbledygook, as any of us would when being accused of wrongdoing.

But, where there's smoke ...

04/24 10:23:40 ET

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