Owning Up

The University of North Carolina is a proud institution, but how its administration has handled the "Fake Classes Scandal" has brought shame on the institution. If nothing else they've provided a case study in how not to do governance and public relations. From the article about the treatment of Mary Willingham, the tutor who blew the whistle on this thing:

In January, CNN broadcast a national investigation entitled “Some College Athletes Play Like Adults, Read Like 5th-Graders.” Among its findings, CNN featured Willingham and her 183-athlete study. In the glare of the media spotlight, she got carried away, saying at one point: “I mean, we may as well just go over to Glenwood Elementary up the street and just let all the fourth graders in here.” Stephen Colbert amplified the furor when he satirized athlete education in a segment on his Comedy Central show. After playing a clip of Willingham’s quip about admitting fourth graders, the comedian asked: “Why? How fast can they run the 40? Can they really take a hit?”

Many in Chapel Hill took offense. Tar Heel basketball coach Roy Williams suggested at a press conference that Willingham had impugned the moral character of his players. “Every one of the kids that we’ve recruited in 10 years you’d take home and let guard your grandchildren,” he said. Smith, the French history scholar, observes that “getting criticized by the basketball coach in Chapel Hill is a scary thing.” The wave of hostile e-mail Willingham has received included several death threats.

In this volatile atmosphere, Folt convened her faculty on Jan. 17 to hear what amounted to an indictment of Willingham led by Dean. The defendant was tried in absentia for defaming the university. Pointing to slides projected on a large screen, Dean, a scholar of organizational behavior, accused Willingham of making slanderous statements about the academic abilities of Carolina football and basketball players. Her assessments “are virtually meaningless and grossly unfair to our students and the university that admitted them,” he said. “Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this university.” The verdict, recorded on videotape, was swift: The assembled scholars erupted in applause.

“In 25 years of faculty meetings, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Smith said later. “It was a public conviction and an intellectual execution.”

At Dean’s order, Willingham turned over her data on the 183 athletes to him. He declared that the diagnostic test she used, the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA), assesses vocabulary and isn’t recommended for judging literacy levels. She further muddled her results, he added, by miscalculating grade-equivalent levels.

After Dean’s presentation elicited applause, Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor, got to his feet. He mused aloud about the university’s focusing on Willingham as a form of coverup. “President Nixon went down for denial,” he told his colleagues. In an interview later, he elaborated: “What I heard was stonewalling,” he said. “The university is trying to distract us by going after Mary Willingham when there are much bigger issues here about sports and academics, and they’re not unique to North Carolina.”

There's much more in the article you should read for the proper context, and towards the end of it there is mention that it does appear the university administration is finally taking appropriate steps to address the situation, but this account seems to make it clear that the University's powers-that-be finally woke up and decided that shooting the messenger wasn't the best idea. Of course they'd still like to see the messenger dead on the field, but that's just the cost of doing battle in the intercollegiate athletics war isn't it?

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