Authors of new book about academic fraud at UNC argue that big-time college athletes are being cheated out of an education.

March 18, 2015

For 20 years, some employees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill knowingly steered about 1,500 athletes toward no-show courses that never met and were not taught by any faculty members, and in which the only work required was a single research paper that received a high grade no matter the content.

After years of investigations, the scope of the scandal was finally detailed in a report by Kenneth Wainstein, a former official with the U.S. Department of Justice, in October. But it was Mary Willingham, who worked in UNC's Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, who first helped bring the scam to light. Willingham has now teamed up with Jay Smith, a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, to write a book about the long history of the fake courses. Willingham and Smith responded to questions about the new book, Cheated (Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press). Except where specified, the answers are joint.

Q: Mary, you're known as the UNC whistle-blower, and you've been very outspoken on other facets of this story, too, such as your own research on athletes' reading abilities. What are you hoping to accomplish with this book?

A: Cheated helps to keep the conversation moving forward. I'm hopeful that Jay and I can visit schools across the country to discuss the book. To date, we've been able to have conversations with students and faculty at UNC, Tennessee, Indiana and Oklahoma. 

Q: Jay, what prompted your involvement? Is there something about this story that particularly interests you as a historian?

A: I certainly did put my historian's hat on as I researched the deep background of the course fraud and we uncovered both the athletic and academic reasons for its evolution. But I will admit that my first motivation for getting and staying involved in this story, going all the way back to 2010, was to hold administrators' feet to the fire and to be sure that they did not get away with a strategy of stonewalling and casual dishonesty. This remains an important motivation for me.

I think distinguished public universities owe their publics transparency and truthfulness, and UNC has fallen short. Since 2011, and especially since 2012, when I got to know Mary and began laying out the plans for this book, I have also been motivated to fix an educational system that cheats athletes in so many appalling ways.

Q: The two of you have been working on Cheated for nearly two years, but it seems to be coming out at a moment when the type of conversation it's trying to generate is getting a lot of attention. There's the Wainstein report about UNC, the news of academic fraud at Syracuse and increasing Congressional interest and mounting lawsuits, including at UNC. Where do you see your book fitting into this now very loud conversation?

A: There's no question that the iron is hot right now. The lawsuits are going to be the real game changers. We hope that the book will be cited often in classrooms, courtrooms and congressional hearings/commissions. It feels all of a sudden as though we're hitting the crest of a wave, and we're very hopeful that the arguments and evidence from our book will add to the reform momentum.

Q: You finished the book before the Wainstein Report was released. Was there anything in that report that surprised even you?

A: The breadth of the report was pleasantly surprising. The 900-plus-page supplement confirmed what we already knew about the complicity of many of the main characters in our book. 

Q: In the book, you write, "Through negligence, willful blindness and some degree of conscious intent, key actors at the university first permitted the development of widespread academic fraud and then covered up the reasons for that fraud when the wrongdoing at last came to light." Do you believe those key actors been properly identified and held accountable?

A: The people held responsible were all lower-level employees. UNC's administration is and always has been in too much of a hurry to move forward. Real leaders, great leaders, apologize, ask for forgiveness and ask the community -- in this case, the people of the state -- to move forward with them. They also promise to listen and respond to everyone's concerns.

To date, however, UNC has not even acknowledged the full scope of its failure, nor has any official publicly acknowledged that the desire to win games was one of the metacauses of the entire disaster. There's still a desire to pretend that the whole thing was the product of rogue actions by a few bad apples.

Q: You spend some time in the book discussing the history of the neglected African and Afro-American Studies department where these courses were housed. What role do you think race plays in both the scandal at UNC and the broader issues surrounding it?

A: Race is at the core of the issues here at UNC and in college athletics across the country. Separate is never equal. In essence, Jim Crow laws are still in place for Division I profit-sport college athletes in this country. They suffer from a form of institutionalized racism. Two teams -- football and basketball, where the majority of the starters are black males -- generate most of the money that allows athletic programs to subsist, and to pay for all those largely white Olympic sports.

Yet the players on these two teams receive no compensation and no "world-class" education, as promised in their scholarship agreements. This is exploitation, plain and simple. And the fact that the department of African and Afro-American Studies was used as one of the vehicles for this exploitation at UNC only compounds the tragedy.

Q: The title of the book, Cheated, doesn't so much refer to the fact that athletes cheated, but to your argument that the players were cheated out of a proper education by being steered toward these sham courses. This is the argument of some recent lawsuits against the university, too. What would you say to those who look at the athletes as fully active participants in the scam and don't see them as victims in this?

A: College sport is a paternal system where athletes are forced to listen to the coach. They have no choice because the head coach owns and controls their potential market value (and their playing time) and thus, in effect, controls all their choices and their behaviors. People who blame the athletes assume that they have and are able to exercise autonomy, but they have no such autonomy. They are systematically deprived of the choices, options and freedoms that every other college student takes for granted.

Slavery is an overused analogy, but, look, slaves "participated" in the system by accepting food, shelter and lighter duties if they were ever offered them. Just because they did not stage daily rebellions on the plantation did not mean they bore any responsibility for their plight. People learn to live within systems of exploitation; that doesn't mean the system is any less exploitative.


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