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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Sunday, December 03, 2023
jack baer

Column: North Carolina academic scandal grossly exaggerated

I’m going to make a claim: Mary Willingham can’t read.

That’s a general, misleading statement that could severely damage her future if the public believes it, but you know what? If she’s going to say the exact same thing to the press about a group of college students who sought her out for sorely needed academic help, she deserves it.

In case you haven’t been following the latest academic “scandal” at the University of North Carolina because you have better things to do (how I envy you), here’s the quick summary:

Willingham, a learning specialist at UNC, researched the reading levels of Tar Heel football and basketball players and claimed to CNN that she found 60 percent of these athletes read between a fourth and eighth grade level, with another 8 to 10 percent reading at a third grade level or below. 

Now here’s the funny part: The woman alleging her students can’t read, well, she misread her own results. Or at least most of them.

Outside experts from the University of Minnesota, Georgia State University and the University of Virginia all independently found that Willingham was catastrophically incorrect in her findings. 

According to the experts’ findings, the test she used to judge reading levels was not meant to judge reading ability. The data does not match her claims. The demographics and setting for the testing did not match the test’s norms. 

According to some, reading ability apparently shouldn’t even be measured by grade levels.

Her sample was also tainted because she was working specifically with academically at-risk incoming freshmen.

Either Willingham is as unintelligent as she’s alleging her own students to be or we’ve got a spotlight grabber.

Whatever the answer, it’s too late. The public and media have made their judgement. 

There won’t be a stunning expose, nor will there be any retraction on the primary and secondary reporting done on the scandal. 

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That’s just sad because it is destined to become a symbol of the cynicism surrounding athletics today.

The sporting world was ready to believe that UNC was hiding its student athletes in the academic environment of an elementary school. 

When a poorly written, one-paragraph essay about Rosa Parks written by a student athlete made the public rounds, it was readily believed that the essay received an A-minus as the sole essay in a fake African-American studies class.

It got so bad that Willingham herself had to explain that the essay was a work in progress and did not receive its alleged grade.

By no means was the essay even close to the standards of a community college, but the readiness to believe that it was indicative of athletic department-wide corruption, instead of the struggles of a student needing academic help, was pathetic and appalling.

Does UNC have a very real issue with athletes being pushed into fake classes? From sources other than Willingham, probably. 

Her misinformation is almost definitely rooted in some kind of truth.

What’s unfortunate is that it will be impossible for the NCAA and UNC to carry out a proper investigation due to Willingham’s claims and the resulting public escalation. 

How do you feel about Willingham’s claims? Do you think North Carolina has an educational crisis? Email and let Jack know.

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