Willingham: ‘I’m telling the truth’

By Andy Rosen

UNC Academic Advisor Mary Willingham says she's been harassed and threatened since she went public with her concerns about the academic performance of college athletes. (Photo from CNN Newsource)
UNC academic advisor Mary Willingham says she’s been harassed and threatened since she went public with her concerns about the academic performance of college athletes. (Photo from CNN Newsource)

UNC academic advisor Mary Willingham says she stands behind her conclusion that some Tar Heel athletes read below a third grade level, and she’s calling on President Obama to support an effort to reform college sports.

In an interview with “Carolina Connection,” Willingham said she wrote to Obama asking him to boycott his annual tradition of filling out brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament.

“I asked him to stand with us,” Willingham said, “and to send a message that we need to do the right thing for these young men and we need to educate them.”

Willingham, a UNC learning specialist, researched the academic progress of 183 student athletes who the university considered to be at risk academically. She concluded that 60 percent read between fourth grade and eighth grade levels, while eight to ten percent read below third grade level.

Her findings have been sharply rebuked by UNC officials. Provost Jim Dean called them a “travesty.”

“These claims have been unfair to the students, unfair to the admissions officers, unfair to the university,” Dean said earlier this month. He later announced that the university will send Willingham’s research to an outside panel of experts for review.

“What the real travesty is that the data was misinterpreted,” Willingham said. “I’m telling the truth and I stand behind my data.”

Following Willingham’s CNN appearance in early January, UNC’s Office of Human Research Ethics ordered her to stop her research pending a review of whether she violated confidentiality standards.

Willingham said she’s received about a thousand emails of support as the controversy has exploded into the national media. But she said she also has received threats.

“I’ve lost friends; I have enemies,” Willingham said. “I’m walking around with a bullseye on my back.”

Still, she said she has no regrets about going public.

“I was part of this problem for seven years. I participated in a bogus system of eligibility,” she said. “I can still see the faces of all those young men who left here with either no degree or a degree that’s meaningless to them.”

“I need to fix and undo what I did,” she said.


To listen to Andy Rosen’s entire 21 minute unedited interview with Mary Willingham, click below:

1 Comment

  1. What is frightening is that if it’s happening at UNC, a university with a lofty reputation, you know that universities and colleges less prominent on the academic list. The term student-athlete has become a joke, particularly dealing with big-time football and basketball. Just listen to some of the post-game interviews and you can tell when the individual being interviewed is truly a student-athlete or simply a dumb jock being carried because of his athletic prowess.
    A former college coach at a prestigious academic institution once told me that even at his school, if you could get admissions to let them in, the coach could “hide the athlete for four years.” The NCAA turns a blind eye to the academic problems within athletics because the competitions have become major fundraisers for both colleges AND the NCAA. Oh, sure, the organization showcases some of the athletes who have gone from college to successful careers, but they know that myriad academic problems and, yes,scandals exist at a troubling rate.

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