In The Latest UNC Scandal, It’s Not About Admissions

Pop quiz!

When it comes to literacy and UNC athletes, who’s got their facts right: Mary Willingham or Steve Farmer?

A.    Mary Willingham
B.    Steve Farmer
C.    Both
D.    Neither
E.    Both C and D
F.    I don’t know, but good Lord, Holden Thorp must be thanking his lucky stars right now

Time’s up! The correct answer is (E).

“Both and neither,” I hear you asking? Yep. And I think the real truth is even more complicated than that.

Let me try to explain.

First, a recap. Last week, CNN reported that universities across the nation were admitting student-athletes (football and basketball players, mostly) who were shockingly underprepared for college, some even to the point of being functionally illiterate. The scope of CNN’s piece went far beyond UNC, but the report centered on Mary Willingham, an academic advisor and former tutor at UNC who had some pretty damning numbers.

Here’s the key stat: Willingham said she studied 183 student-athletes admitted to Carolina between 2004 and 2012, and found that 60 percent of them read at between a fourth-grade and an eighth-grade level. Another 10 percent read at a third-grade level or below.

UNC officials immediately struck back. “We do not believe that claim and find it patently unfair,” said the university in a statement. “I can tell you, we do not admit students who we believe cannot read or write,” said undergraduate admissions director Steve Farmer. Roy Williams even got teary-eyed in a press conference. But no numbers to counter Willingham’s, at least not right away.

Then on Thursday, the numbers came in.

From UNC’s statement: “Between 2004 and 2012, the same time period examined by CNN, UNC-Chapel Hill enrolled 1,377 first-year student-athletes through the special-talent policies and procedures. More than 97 percent (1,338) of those students met the CNN threshold (for college-level literacy)…Of the student-athletes who enrolled between 2004 and 2012 under the special-talent policies, 341 were recruited for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. More than 90 percent (307) of these students met the CNN threshold.”

“The CNN threshold,” by the way—a weird phrase that I think UNC just now invented—refers to the level cited in the CNN report as a measure of college-level literacy: a 400 on the SAT verbal exam or a 16 on the ACT. What UNC is saying here is that more than 90 percent of the football and basketball players who entered Carolina during that eight-year period topped either or both of those scores. (Which means a full ten percent didn’t, but that’s another story.)

So. There are the numbers. Willingham’s on the one side, and Farmer’s on the other.

Who’s right?

Here’s the thing: Willingham and Farmer are technically measuring different things, so the truth is that both sides could be right. Farmer believes otherwise—“I think these numbers are wildly incompatible,” he told WCHL Thursday—but it’s entirely feasible for someone to score a 400 on the SAT without being able to read at an eighth-grade level. (Farmer wasn’t able to say exactly how high those athletes scored, only that they topped the minimum “CNN threshold” of 400 SAT/16 ACT. How much did they top it by? No idea.) We don’t have Willingham’s research in front of us to be able to verify it independently—so we can’t say for sure—but unless there was something dramatically wrong with her methodology, there’s no real reason to disbelieve her.

So where does that leave us?

Should we be upset? What should we be upset about? And why? And what should be done?

Well, that’s where it gets a little more complicated—because the real issues here, and the real culprits, lie way beyond the scope of this current debate. That’s what I mean when I say Willingham and Farmer’s numbers are both right and wrong.

A couple things.

First: UNC’s getting singled out here because Willingham is front and center in the CNN report, but it’s important to recognize that this is not, specifically, a UNC problem. It’s a college athletics problem, writ large. This is, I guarantee you, happening everywhere: wherever there’s a major Division I program, you’re going to find students being admitted who can barely read or write. (The CNN report says as much, as does Willingham’s master’s thesis.)

It’s also worth noting that all of this is well within NCAA guidelines. The NCAA requires only that student-athletes earn a 700 on their SATs—that’s a 350 average on the math and verbal portions, well below the “CNN threshold” of 400, and a student can even get admitted with a lower score if they have a high enough GPA (and any self-respecting high school can figure out how to inflate that). Which is to say that the NCAA doesn’t even try to require that its student-athletes be literate. That’s kind of a problem too.

In that context, is it really so shocking to hear that a sizable percentage of college athletes have a hard time cutting the mustard academically? (I haven’t even mentioned the pervasive influence of money, yet another big-time source of pressure on universities to admit student-athletes who struggle in the classroom.) How bad is it? Forget the low bar—look at the high bar. In men’s basketball, a GPA of 3.30 is good enough to qualify you as an Academic All-American. That’s a B-plus average. Average a B-plus in your classes (with grade inflation!), and you’ll rank among the best in the entire frickin’ country.

Not to knock a B-plus, but that’s kinda sad, people.

And it goes even deeper.

Because—although it’s not obvious—we also ought to recognize this as an indictment of K-12 education in general.

There have been a couple N&O articles about Mary Willingham in the last week. In one of them, the opening line jumped out at me: “As a reading specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham met athletes who told her they had never read a book and didn’t know what a paragraph was.”

My first thought? “Oh yeah. I’ve been there.”

You might know that I too have an academic background, including seven years in grad school at Rutgers University in New Jersey. At Rutgers, I paid part of my way by teaching English 101, Expository Writing, the one course that all Rutgers students are absolutely required to take and pass. Since it’s a universal requirement, you get quite a diverse cross-section of students.

Some of them were terrific. Some of them were atrocious.

And since the goal of Expos 101 is to teach incoming freshmen how to write a college-level essay, I can tell you, from direct personal experience, in no uncertain terms: yes, yes, a thousand times yes, there are lots and lots of first-year college students who don’t know what a paragraph is. Lots and lots of college students who’ve never read a book. Lots and lots of college students who can’t grasp the meaning of a piece of writing, can’t formulate a thesis statement, and can’t understand how to use evidence to support an argument when they do come up with one. (We teachers used to sit around wondering what level of troglodyte you’d have to be to apply to Rutgers and actually get turned down. We finally got our answer when “Jersey Shore” came out.)

And I’m not talking about athletes here.

I’m talking about the general population. Regular students. The ones who met all the standard admissions criteria and didn’t require a “special admit” to get in.

This is how it’s come to be in K-12 education, in a lot of places. It is possible for students to graduate from high school without ever having to write an essay or read anything of any real substance. The push for more and more emphasis on STEM classes (and therefore less and less on reading, writing, and critical thinking) is only making matters worse.

It is out of this system that admissions directors like Steve Farmer are getting their applicants. I don’t envy them one bit. (Carolina tends to get a higher class of applicants, but still.)

And if it’s that bad among incoming college students in general, it only stands to reason that it’s even worse among incoming student-athletes—many of whom are receiving those “special admits” because they can’t even meet those standards.

So when I hear Mary Willingham say 60 percent of incoming student-athletes at UNC can’t read beyond an eighth-grade level—no, I’m not surprised. I can’t confirm those numbers, I don’t have the raw data in front of me, I suppose it’s possible she could be wrong—but no, I’m not surprised. The numbers UNC released Thursday really don’t change a thing for me. I believe they’re accurate, and I believe UNC admitted each and every one of those students with the best of intentions…but I also believe Mary Willingham. I think she’s on to something, at least.

But all of that—all of that—ALL of that—is actually beside the point. Pretty much everything that’s been said around this issue, all week long, has been one red herring after another.

The real question, the one that matters, is this:

Once we admit those students to UNC, are we providing them with a quality education? Are we doing right by them academically while they’re here?

That’s what it comes down to, really. I’m not a fan of “special admits” myself (feels a bit like the tail wagging the dog), but if UNC can bring in someone who’s virtually incapable of reading or writing, and in four years bring that person up to a level of literacy they’d otherwise never even be able to dream of reaching—well, bully for UNC, then! That would be a good thing, not a bad thing.

That was, after all, the purpose of Expos 101, up at Rutgers. Still is, in fact. They take kids who have no business being in college, put them through a reading/writing/critical thinking boot camp, run them through the wringer for a semester, and turn them into real College Students. (Most of them, anyway.)

This is also why college athletics departments—the good ones, that is—are so rigorous about making sure their student-athletes attend their classes, keep up with their schoolwork, and seek help when they need it. For every horror story about “no-show” classes or grades being changed behind professors’ backs, there’s a story about compliance officers peeking into classrooms to make sure the kids are there, or coaches benching their best players for missing a test right before their biggest game of the year. (Hey, Tom Izzo.)

This is what we want. Regardless of the quality of the student when they enter the university, what matters is that they be a high-quality scholar when they leave it.

This is a point Jan Boxill often makes, when talking about the value of college athletics. (She’s the director of the Parr Ethics Center as well as a college sports expert, so she ought to know.) It’s also a point that Willingham makes in her master’s thesis; in fact much of her argument about admissions criteria rests on the assertion that there’s a level of literacy below which you just can’t expect a student to make it in college under any circumstances. “I am prepared to grant that there are benefits to a student-athlete’s college attendance, but ultimately, admitting under prepared students constitutes deceit and is immoral,” she writes on pages 10-11. “In admitting underprepared students, the university and the coaches are setting them up for failure.” (She may be right, but that question requires a whole other debate.)

So. Is UNC measuring up?

Obviously it wasn’t doing such a great job before all the scandals broke. (Willingham’s most damning allegation actually has nothing to do with admissions—it’s her charge that people in the academic support program were fully aware that cheating was rampant and classes were fraudulent, and let it all slide. That’s the smoking gun we haven’t seen yet.)

Is it doing better now? As a whole, probably yes, if only because the heat is on. There are reforms in place, actions being taken. Even the undergraduate admissions numbers are improving, as Farmer’s statistics indicate: all 154 of the “special-admit” athletes who entered UNC last fall met the “CNN threshold” of 400 SAT/16 ACT.

That question—“is UNC measuring up?”—is a question that’s going to take a lot of time, and a lot of oversight, to answer. It’s a question that’s never going to go away. It’s a question that never ought to go away.

But let us be clear, when we think about the Willingham saga and talk about those numbers: that is the real question at stake here. Is our university, and our athletic department, really committed to providing a high-quality education to student-athletes? Does our academic support center have its priorities straight? Is there oversight? When student-athletes leave Carolina, do they leave it as scholars, critical thinkers, citizens? Or is their “degree” just a phony piece of paper?

Or to put it another way: the current debate aside, it’s not about what comes in—it’s about what goes out.

Last things first.

UNC Basketball Celebrates Win Over No. 1 Michigan St!

CHAPEL HILL – Check out this behind-the-scenes video of the UNC men’s basketball team celebrating Wednesday following the big win over No. 1 Michigan State!

The team also received a warm welcome home from East Lansing at the Smith Center in the early morning hours.

Video by UNC Athletics:

Olympic Sports Spotlight

CHAPEL HILL–It’s that time of the week again. That time when we take a step back from the bright lights of the football field, basketball court and soccer turf to check in on some exciting Olympic sports action in Tar Heel country. This weekend, the top ranked women’s field hockey team and the surging, No. 14 volleyball squad will have plenty to offer.


-Field Hockey: These Tar Heel ladies will continue ACC play Friday by hosting No. 13 Duke at 6 p.m. at Francis E. Henry Stadium.  Carolina is 8-0 overall and 1-0 in the ACC. The Blue Devils sit at 6-2 on the season. A year ago, the Tar Heels thumped Duke down in Durham 7-3. Another intriguing aspect of this intense rivalry this year will be a sister act. Tar Heel freshman goalkeeper Shannon Johnson’s older sister Aileen is a sophomore midfielder for Duke. Admission is free for the game so head on out to support your top-ranked Tar Heels.


-Volleyball: The undefeated Tar Heels were dealt a tough blow on Thursday as Head Coach Joe Sagula announced that redshirt junior Chaniel Nelson will be out for the rest of the season due to a stress fracture in her tibia. Despite the somber news, fourteenth-ranked Carolina will soldier on with a home match Friday at 7 p.m. against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Earlier in the season, UNC swept Notre Dame in a non-conference tilt at the Blue Raider Bash. Already off to the best start in program history, Carolina will be looking to keep the streak going in Carmichael Arena. Admission is free and live video can be viewed on GoHeels TV.

Tar Heels Ready For Pirate Invasion

CHAPEL HILL– Carolina’s back is against the wall already this football season. And the coaches are fully aware of the situation the team is now in. sitting with a 1-2 record.

But one positive nugget to take away from last Saturday may have been the improving play of the defense. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning says he woke up on Sunday feeling a lot better about his unit’s play.

“I was a lot more encouraged. And I told the players that I woke up a lot more encouraged than I’d been in a long time. Obviously I was disappointed in the score and the loss, but encouraged at the way they played,” Coach Koenning says.

Despite the extreme physicality of the Georgia Tech contest on a sloppy track, Coach Koenning says he has still been pushing the defense as hard as he can this week heading into the match-up against ECU.

“The only way you can practice full speed is to go full speed. And I know it’s the middle of the season, and I know that it was a physical game last week. […] But I also know that I am still pressing as hard as I can for them to practice harder,” Coach Koenning says.

Head Coach Fedora says making personnel changes for this week’s home game is a distinct possibility. He says that Carolina’s players have their jobs on the line each and every day at practice.

“Every day when we come out here, someone has an opportunity to take someone’s job. And we’ll go back and look at the film tonight and see what we think. If somebody’s making move, we’ll make a move,” Coach Fedora says.

Coach Fedora says the Tar Heels will need to keep their eyes firmly focused on talented Pirate wide receiver Justin Hardy. He says his physicality and athleticism will require gang tackling to bring him down.

“He’s a big guy […] who can run. He does a lot of things for them. You got to get a lot of guys around him. He’s hard to bring down. He can break tackles. He’s not your normal wide receiver,” Coach Fedora says.

In all likelihood, East Carolina will attack with an aerial assault in Kenan Stadium on Saturday. And Coach Fedora says it will be a tough assignment for the defense coming off the option ground game they faced last weekend.

“The defense has to make a quick turnaround. […] They got to put everything out of their head that we’ve been working on the last two weeks,” Coach Fedora says.

We’ll all find out how quickly the Tar Heels can adapt to the Pirate attack at half past noon on Saturday.

Coach Williams: P.J. Earns Right to Practice with Team

CHAPEL HILL– UNC men’s basketball coach Roy Williams delivered a couple big announcements at Media Day on Thursday. And not surprisingly, they both revolved around the embattled junior guard P.J. Hairston.

Coach Williams says Hairston has earned the opportunity to practice with the team when the Tar Heels open up official practice for the 2013-2014 campaign on Friday. Hairston was suspended on July 28.

Up to this point, Coach Williams says Hairston has complied with all of his demands and that he “has never made the demands on a young man that [he has] made of P.J.”

Coach Williams also says the final decision on how many games Hairston will miss of the regular season will be made before any games are played. He says he just hasn’t made up his mind on the exact length of the suspension.

But it won’t be long now before that decision. The Tar Heels open up their regular season on November 8 against Oakland University.

Carolina Women’s Soccer’s Next Stop: Pittsburgh

CHAPEL HILL– The string of road games for the UNC women’s soccer team continues Thursday night at 7 p.m. when they take on new conference member Pittsburgh.

The Tar Heels and the Panthers will be meeting for the first time in history. The contest will be staged at Peterson Sports Complex on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.

So far this season, the Tar Heels have spent the majority of their time away from Chapel Hill. After Thursday’s game, UNC will have played eight of its first 11 games on the road.

Despite the brutal stretch, Coach Anson Dorrance’s defending national champs sit a respectable 8-2 on the season and 2-2 in the ACC. The Panthers are winless in their four conference match-ups.

Tar Heel fans can catch the game on ESPN3 via Pitt Panthers TV.

‘Thorn in Side’ Ebron Pushes Coaches, Personal Limits

CHAPEL HILL– We’re two days out from another football game day in Chapel Hill. And with it, will be another chance at redemption for a Tar Heel squad still trying to put the puzzle pieces together, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

Offensive Coordinator Blake Anderson says his boys have developed a nasty habit.

“You name it; we’ve done it, to be honest with you. We just have this habit right now of creating some self-inflicted wounds-penalty, busted assignment, some decision-making, and some missed reads. It plagued us the whole second half the other day,” Coach Anderson says.

Coach Anderson looked back on the film from last week’s contest, and he says the ground game still has a lot of issues stemming from miscommunication, and he says his running backs desperately need more reps.

“We still got some timing, decision-making, and continuity issues that are going to come with reps. We’re still not where we want to be. We need more reps. We really do,” Anderson says.

The Tar Heels were in a similar position last year at this point in the season, and Coach Anderson says he is doing his best to remind his team of that as they fight to regain traction in the ACC.

“We had made some similar mistakes. And I just reminded them we rallied from that. We got better every week and did some really good things offensively. We’re in virtually the same shape,” Coach Anderson says.

Coach Anderson says UNC tight end Eric Ebron is one of the best athletes he has ever coached in his over twenty years of experience, but Ebron says he is not satisfied with his play. He demands more.

“I can get even better. That’s my job. That’s my motivation. Things like that […] will help the team. It will relay down,” Ebron says.

Ebron says his childhood dream was always to become a firefighter, and maybe that’s why he carries so much passion with him on the football field?

He says that immense passion sometimes carries over into being “a thorn in the side” of the coaches. But Ebron says he doesn’t plan on changing that side of him anytime soon.

“It’s the only way to let them know I’m here. And I’m always going to be here. I’m not going anywhere. They got me for the rest of the year. […] I’m letting them know that I’m going to be a thorn in their side every day we have practice. Because situations like Saturday, I want the ball. And if you don’t give me the ball, I’m going to be even more of a pain in your side,” Ebron says.

Carolina Volleyball Sweeps State, Stays Perfect

CHAPEL HILL – The Carolina volleyball team opened up ACC play in style Wednesday night. The Tar Heels swept through NC State 3-0 and maintained their unbeaten season.

Carmichael Arena was treated to a demolition as the Tar Heels won their 28th straight home match and extended their 2013 record to 12-0.

Down 23-19 in the third set, Carolina scored six straight points to take set three 25-23 and secure its ninth sweep of the season.

Carolina closes out its seven-match home stand in Carmichael Arena, hosting ACC newcomer Notre Dame on Friday at 7 p.m. The Tar Heels swept the Irish 3-0 to open the season in a non-ACC match at MTSU’s Blue Raider Bash.

Olympic Sports Spotlight

CHAPEL HILL–It’s that time of the week again. That time when we take a step back from the bright lights of the football field, basketball court and soccer turf to check in on some exciting Olympic sports action in Tar Heel country. This weekend, the top ranked women’s field hockey team and the surging, no. 15 volleyball squad will be busy.


-Field Hockey: Last weekend, the team emerged victorious in their game against Radford by a score of 8-1. With a balanced attack that included goals from six different players, the top-ranked team now sets their sights on ACC play looking to preserve their unblemished 6-0 season record. On Friday at 6 p.m. the Tar Heels will head up the road to Charlottesville to face Virginia. And Carolina will wrap up the weekend with a contest versus VCU in Richmond on Sunday.


-Volleyball: Now up to 15 in the latest polls, Carolina will be looking to keep the good times rolling this weekend in Chapel Hill. Still undefeated and boasting UNC’s best season start since way back in 1981, the Tar Heels welcome a pair of Big Ten foes to Carmichael Arena for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Friday at 7 p.m. is the start time for UNC’s game against the sixteenth-ranked Fighting Illini of Illinois. After that, Carolina will square off against Indiana at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

Tar Heels Continue Slide in Loss to FSU

TALLAHASSEE, FL– The UNC Women’s Soccer team dropped its second straight match on Wednesday night against league rival Florida State by an all too familiar 1-0 margin. The Seminoles have beaten the Tar Heels the last three times they’ve played by that same scoreline.

Although the Tar Heels outshot the Seminoles 17-10 and had an edge in corner kicks 8-2, another loss befell the reeling UNC team that seemed to have everything clicking in high gear only a week ago as the top ranked team in the nation.

The deciding goal came late in the game after the Tar Heels were called for a handball near midfield. On the restart, Florida State pounced on the UNC mistake as Jamia Fields scored for the Seminoles from 18 yards out on the right side just 7:37 left before the end of regulation.

It is a puzzling time for the Carolina team as they have outshot Notre Dame and FSU 35-15 in the last two games but dropped back-to-back 1-0 decisions.

The Tar Heels will look to solve their offensive woes on Sunday against Miami at 1 p.m.