Terrible UNC paper: there's more to the story, but does that matter?

Jay Busbee
April 4, 2014
UNC athlete paper.

Alone among all the schools in the 2014 NCAA tournament, UNC lost twice in recent weeks: once to Iowa State in the round of 32, and once in the eyes of the public when a terrible paper purportedly written by an athlete apparently received an A-minus. The news earned UNC plenty of derision for rewarding such gross incompetence.

Turns out that the truth is slightly more complex, though the story itself remains the same.

Mary Willingham, a UNC learning specialist who exposed the paper, used it in an ESPN documentary as part of an overall example about academic problems at North Carolina. The editing of the documentary made it appear that the paper itself received the A grade, a fact which many news outlets, including Yahoo Sports, reported. However, the paper was actually part of an overall class in which the student earned an A-. Willingham took to Twitter to correct the misperception:

Willingham further clarified the paper's origins in a discussion with Slate. The full breakdown is here, but in short, what was shown on television was not exactly an academic paper in and of itself, but part of a larger body of work. “It’s an original document from an athlete for an essay—for a final. That’s all I know,” Willingham told Slate, and aded, “That is the grade level the person was writing at. That’s the point.”

Of note: as Yahoo Sports pointed out, the paper was in fact plagiarized from Rosa Parks' own autobiography, and whether it was a final draft or not, should have been sufficient to warrant disciplinary action under UNC's own code of academic conduct, not an A-minus grade.

The publication of the paper in multiple news outlets spurred a spirited defense of the university, with both UNC officials and fans adopting a shoot-the-messenger mentality. UNC supporters pointed to the fact that Willingham has made national media appearances and drawn interest from movie and television producers as evidence that her motives are financial rather than ethical. On a more purely academic level, Willingham's methodology for determining the viability of student-athletes in the classroom at UNC has come under scrutiny as well. The blog "Coaching The Mind" has laid out a comprehensive timeline that depicts inaccuracies in the public statements of Willingham and her colleagues as well as university officials' assertions of her improper research.

The charges against Willingham are classic whistleblower-denigration techniques: criticize the research, critique the methodology, question the motives, sow doubt upon doubt upon doubt. And there is much to question about the way in which Willingham went about her research. Fairly or unfairly, her future findings will be viewed with far more skepticism ... which, in truth, is better for all concerned.

However, skepticism is not necessarily disbelief. The fact remains that if the paper above was submitted to a college class, for any reason, it demonstrates both a competency level far below that of a typical UNC student and an ethical lapse because of the plagiarism. Willingham could be a secret Duke fan trying to destroy UNC from within, but that has no material impact on the very real shortcomings of that paper and the culture that produced it.

Regardless of whether you side with Willingham or UNC, an independent panel is reviewing Willingham's findings and will soon issue a report. That won't end this scandal, of course, but will shed some light on which side is closer to the truth.

Jay Busbee is a contributor for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter.