Everybody at one point or another in their life has heard the phrase, “There are two sides to every story.” It’s what drives us to be fair to every situation presented to us. Seeking to hear and process each side is what allows people to have a balanced and informed approach to how they respond to the story or situation. One part of our society for which this balanced approach is crucial is the media.
The media tells us what is going on in the world around us. In some cases all there is to do is tell us what happened. However, in other stories they report, their journalistic reputation is on the line in giving us accurate facts from both sides of the story. When this fails to occur and it becomes clear that the narrative is focused on one side of the story, and in some cases pushing only that side as the truth, readers and viewers start to question the integrity of the story being told. Then they start to question the motives of those telling the story.
A clear example of this failure in media integrity is how the University of North Carolina academic scandal story has been handled in recent months by multiple media outlets. There has been one narrative told, and when facts arise in dispute of this narrative, they are dismissed and not reported. Or in this case, when the “facts” being used to push this narrative are discredited, there have been no corrections made to the record.
The recent example of this has to do with Mary Willingham, who worked with UNC student-athletes during the time that this scandal was exposed, and has been called a “whistleblower” in all of this recent uproar. She has been trumpeted about by the likes of CNN and ESPN, who reported that her research showed that over a hundred student-athletes she worked with at UNC couldn’t read at a high school level.
CNN’s video report:
This article won’t bore you with her statistics. In fact, it would be a waste of time because that research was recently discredited by three different outside experts from three different institutions of higher learning. But what it will do is show the other side of this story from a qualified vantage point of somebody directly involved with this situation who is focused on the student-athletes and the reforms that have taken place and continue to take place moving forward.
That vantage point belongs to Bradley Bethel, a learning specialist who has worked with student-athletes at UNC for the last 3 years, and at other institutions prior to UNC. It should come as no surprise at this point that none of the outlets who put Willingham out front and center have shown an interest in Mr. Bethel’s counter-narrative. When one outlet did (News & Observer), they managed to dice up his comments in a way to keep their original narrative intact. So we decided to seek out the other side of this story and spoke with Mr. Bethel.
I first read on tarheelblog.com that you gave an interview to Dan Kane at the News & Observer, but that he took your statements and put them out of context in his article? – “Yes, that’s true and so I can’t see working with the N&O again. I guess my answers didn’t fit their narrative without some journalistic creativity taking place on their part. Tarheelblog.com, however, despite being clearly supportive of UNC athletics, has at least tried to acknowledge legitimate criticism of UNC while still pointing out the flaws in critics’ claims. They’ve been the most fair with the information that the media is discussing.”
How do you describe what you do with student-athletes? – “My job is most succinctly described as helping student-athletes learn how to learn. That’s what I do. I work with underprepared student-athletes who have come to college without having developed the habits of a successful learner. They often did not grow up in an environment, like you and I did, that may have showed them along the way what habits and routines it takes to be a successful student in college. In many cases these student-athletes are first generation college students. They typically come from school environments that didn’t foster the learning of these habits. So my job is to then help them develop these habits so that they can become successful learners and get the most out of their college experience with a meaningful, real education.”
In referencing that first generation college student, many of these student-athletes might not have had that college opportunity without athletics, right? – “Yes, exactly. In fact, that’s an example of how athletics can be a means of providing a real education for these students. I would say that’s the number one reason people in academic support do what we do. I would even venture to say that a lot of us see what we do as accomplishing a degree of social justice in the process. We want these students to get the most out of this opportunity that they would not have had a chance to have without athletics. They may be big stars to the fans, but to me, a lot of them come from poor backgrounds, even poverty, and this can be their big break beyond athletics. We want help them be as successful as they can be in the classroom and beyond.”
How would you characterize your mission then? – “I would say we use the opportunity student-athletes have been given through athletics to help them experience a meaningful education and prepare them for life, a successful life, after athletics.”
With that mission in my mind, how could so many of the educators at UNC not be behind that? – “I think many UNC faculty and staff are behind it, but Mary Willingham has dismissed it, and That’s what is the most frustrating part of this story and why I have started speaking out. The narrative of Mary Willingham (MW) has been to completely dismiss the great work that the academic support program does with student-athletes and call it all a scam. That we are constantly failing these students and at the same time trumpeting herself as the only enlightened educator among the support staff who can see through the problems we face. That frustrates me because I know the commitment and dedication that this staff makes with the student-athletes. The sacrifices all of us make in knowing this job can be all hours of the day, sometimes every day of the week. All with the goal of providing these student-athletes a real educational experience. I feel privileged to have worked with these people and they’re some of the best educators at UNC. I’ve worked on other academic support staffs at other institutions and I strongly feel that UNC’s staff is as dedicated and talented as any in the country.”
Do you think MW’s original intent was pure, or was it skewed from the get go? – “Well, this is speculation, but I think she saw a problem originally, a problem that I’ve acknowledged as well. There were students being admitted that shouldn’t have been admitted. I don’t mean not admitted to college, but maybe not admitted to UNC. UNC is a rigorous university and some of these students were not prepared for that level of academics. UNC does not have the support infrastructure to support that type of student. So as a result, you have to have higher admissions standards that match the rigorous level of learning at UNC. She saw this and wanted something done about it, which is good. But then she took a destructive approach to it by embellishing her stories and inflating or fabricating her statistics with the intent of grabbing headlines. She made it about her being focus of change instead of keeping the focus on the change itself.”
What do you mean by making her the focus? – “Well, the problem stems from her insistence that she be part of the change. Instead of letting the new administrators and support staff come in at this point and really reform the system. I don’t know how else to describe it other than attention-seeking. An example of that is her consistent refusal to acknowledge what changes and reforms have taken place since 2010, which, by the way, is the last time she worked with student-athletes at UNC. There have been changes made already, but she wouldn’t know about it because she doesn’t work in this field any more. But she’s still insisting that her ideas, as unclear as they have been, be put in the forefront of this discussion.”
So she hasn’t been involved with student-athletes at UNC since 2010? – “No, she has not. She also hasn’t worked with the scores of new people that came to UNC and have been the champions of these reforms. Since she was here we now have a new Provost, a new Chancellor, a new Director of Academic Support, a new Athletic Director, and a new football coach. There are so many new people and changes, all of which have been ignored by her and the particular media outlets that will only follow her narrative in this story. And it’s a shame, because those outlets could really use their voice to trumpet the reforms that have taken place and help drive further positive reforms. True reform requires integrity and ideas, not duplicity and defamation.”
In your blog you spoke of the difference in reform philosophies between MW and you. – “Right. Ethics too. She has really adopted the “ends justify the means” approach where she is willing to go on CNN or other stations and say whatever she needs to despite the truthfulness of those statements. The fact that she is accessing students’ records without consent, and then publicizing information in those records in the media and places like Twitter, is unethical and a violation of those students’ rights. She is really unscrupulous in her methods, which is problematic to say the least. My philosophy has been more about giving more of a voice to the student-athletes in order to allow them to advocate for themselves. That’s why I support the idea of what the Northwestern team is doing and the O’Bannon lawsuit. That “idea” is giving the student-athletes a seat at the table so that they have a voice in deciding how these reforms affect them. I would rather be behind the scenes because it’s not about me, but again, MW insists that she be front and center, despite the ethical damage she does in the process.”
Has she offered up any ideas? – “She said she would start a literacy program, which is interesting, but doesn’t make sense. That would assume that there are as many students who are reading at an elementary level or are illiterate as she claims, but there aren’t. Her statistics were flawed at best, fabricated at worst. And such a program that teaches athletes to read would be condescending and patronizing because they know how to read. A more appropriate service to them is something like I am starting this summer, which is a program that teaches students to read and study at a college level.”
Is this another new change? – “Yes, I’m developing a summer program that works with underprepared student-athletes to get them prepared to go to school at UNC. Again, this doesn’t mean they read at an elementary level. It just means they need help developing the reading habits they will need to study at UNC. So this starts in August, where I’ll be teaching new football players an intensive college reading strategy course for them so that they’re up to speed to the reading level of UNC academics. It’s not teaching them the basics of reading, because, again, they already know how to read.”
How do you feel about the fact that MW’s major charge of intent on UNC’s part is to exploit these student-athletes? – “Well, the irony of that is that she seems to be exploiting the athletes themselves as a means of getting attention. The worst example being the recent tweet about the basketball players. She had no right to look at these records in the first place. But to then tweet it out is exploitive and cheap and obviously a show of growing desperation on her part, in light of her data being discredited by outside experts in recent weeks.”
You showed point by point why her methodology was flawed in assessing these students and representing the data in the way she did, in which she has since been discredited. This was a major point ignored by the media. – “Yes, she has not been transparent about her methodology, and the hints she has given us suggest an unsound methodology, which she would be unqualified to employ even if it were sound. Look, she is not qualified, and neither am I, to interpret certain tests she claims to have used in her assessments. There are tests she is referencing like WAIS that only a licensed psychologist can read and determine the results. She isn’t a psychologist. She is just really stretching with this misrepresented data. That’s what is so frustrating. The media like CNN, HBO, and ESPN have not come back and corrected the record.”
What do you feel about the faction in the UNC faculty that is behind MW, or really just behind the anti-athletics side of this story at the university? – “That’s a great question. One, it’s not a big group. By and large the faculty I have interacted with are great educators who care about the student-athletes’ education and don’t hold being an athlete against them. But for the ones you’re referencing it really is mind-boggling. Because at the core of this they have abandoned their own scholarly methods of truth-seeking. When you’re a scholar you respect peer-reviewed journals and presentations because that is how you become credible. It’s the rigorous methods of determining truth through the peer review process that gives credence to your work. So they practice this truth-seeking in their own work but then abandon all of that to support this sensationalism and this media narrative. This is ironic because any one of them would tell their classes that they cannot use a newspaper media source as a reputable source of information in their work. They want you to use sources that have been subject to scrutiny to the methods of determining truth. Yet, they’re following the media’s narrative of MW as total truth.”
In that vein, has there been internal concern you’ve seen as her research has begun to be discredited in its methodology and presentation, in terms of how that reflects on UNC’s reputation as a leading research university? – “That’s a great question. One I don’t have the answer to because I don’t know if anybody has looked it from that perspective. And that perspective should concern us, yes. I do know that there have been faculty members who have been critical and have not been swept up in MW’s crusade. You know, there’s always a silent majority and I believe that most members are not on her side and are more in the middle on this debate. And part of that is because of the reforms the faculty has seen over the last four years because this has been an all-in approach. The constructive reforms have included input from the faculty, the administration, the athletic leaders and the academic support program. And honestly, there’s no persuading the MW group. I’m trying to stay constructive and keep the people in the middle behind the positive changes going on and keep moving that forward for the student-athletes. They’re who matter in this, not some anti-athletics crusade. Again, some of these students wouldn’t have this educational opportunity without athletics.”
Have the same media outlets that have interviewed MW reached out to you? – “Well, what I can say is that they don’t seem to be interested in a narrative other than the one they have been telling in their reporting. So I’ll be interested in what they do moving forward. I thought the media would be just as excited at getting the record right on the flawed whistleblower because they are focused on a good story. But they, people like Paul Barrett and Sara Ganim, really refuse to acknowledge that they were duped by MW because they have invested too much into her narrative at this point. I think they are intentionally ignoring this at this point and hoping it goes away so that they don’t have to admit any fault.”
Again, it seems like MW is doing everything she can to stay in their spotlight. – “Yes. That’s true. That’s why I think MW has been exploited herself. She is victim and a perpetrator. The media has turned her into something she is not. Four years ago she was an educator. Now she has resorted to inappropriate and at times unethical behavior to secure a spotlight.”
Expand some on the positive changes that have taken place since 2010 at UNC. – “Well, first of all are the changes to the admissions’ process for student-athletes. We’ve shifted to a quantitative assessment in which we can predict what the student-athletes’ GPA will be in that first year. That is better than just the typical qualitative assessment that focuses on looking back at where the student-athlete came from. UNC is one of the only institutions I know of that is using this method. And the main thing driving this positive change is cooperation.”
What are you referring to when you say cooperation? – “At the top, there is cooperation between Athletics and Admissions. At the bottom, there is cooperation between academic support and the coaches. Every Thursday morning we have an academic meeting with the football coaches. We give them a complete rundown about what’s going on with their players academically. Coach Fedora has been very respectful and supportive towards us. They have actually demonstrated a genuine commitment to the academic success of their team. Our interactions with them have been positive. And I can tell you that not every school in the nation can say that about their football coaches. I won’t say which schools, but again, I’m involved in our national organization and I know colleagues that say the wish they had the working relationship and support that we have with this staff. I feel fortunate to be working with Coach Fedora and his staff, as an educator.”
How do you feel about UNC today, in terms of how they support and prepare their student-athletes compared to what you know happens at other schools? – “When I came here, I did not arrive at what I thought was an academic support program in disrepair or in need of an overhaul and I’m insulted when I read that overhauling was needed. It’s not a program that needed to be or has been overhauled. Did it need improvement? Sure, and that’s why I was excited to come here and be a part of those improvements. But there is genuine commitment from Bubba Cunningham to make our academic support program one of the best in the nation. We are great now, but we continue to get better and we will be one of the best in the nation.”
Thanks to Mr. Bethel, you have seen a glimpse into the other side of this story. Did things go wrong at UNC? Yes. Did UNC pay for that? Well, that’s what is up for debate. UNC was investigated by the NCAA and sanctioned. The Chancellor at the time is gone. The Athletic Director at the time is gone. And the football staff at the time is gone.
So it’s safe to say those people paid for these problems. When the recent academic scandal broke, the NCAA was in Chapel Hill in the Fall of 2011 with UNC officials as it investigated the charges and determined that there were no further infractions committed. But again, whatever side you fall on in this debate, at least be willing to look at both sides of the story. When one side is pushing their narrative by ignoring new facts presented in this case, that should tell you something is amiss with their story.
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