By Emily Bruzzo, Staff Writer
Published in print Aug. 20, 2014
In 2011, Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, revealed that the university staged fake lectures and allowed plagiarized work to slip under the radar so student-athletes could focus more on the scoreboard and less on the gradebook.
Now, nearly three years later, the tables have turned and charges of academic misconduct have been aimed at Willingham herself.
According to Dan Kane of Raleigh’s The News and Observer, UNC fans posting on an Inside Carolina online message board accused Willingham of poorly cited material and blatant plagiarism in her 2009 master’s thesis.
The thesis, which Willingham obtained from UNC Greensboro, was entitled “Academics & Athletics— A Clash of Cultures: Division I Football Programs.”
Kane wrote in his August 4th article that The News & Observer looked into the claims made about Willingham’s work and ran the paper through WriteCheck, a website used for detecting possible plagiarism. The News and Observer also found that the thesis contained questionable passages.
Kane did clarify, however, that “the passages amount to a small percentage of the paper’s material,” bringing into question the validity of the accusations.
Dr. Stephen Ruzicka, Willingham’s thesis advisor at UNC Greensboro, explained in an email that the thesis was not a study centered on UNC Chapel Hill, but instead provided an examination of the NCAA system and participating schools.
Ruzicka argues that the attacks on the controversial thesis are simply Willingham’s adversaries spearheading a campaign to discredit her.
“I don’t believe there was plagiarism in any conventional or intentional sense,” Ruzicka says. “Mary did (at my direction) a great deal of cutting and pasting on her way to a final version and I suspect that a proper citation present in earlier drafts got lost in the process.”
“I don’t really care to participate in a discussion about this,” Ruzicka asserted,” since any publicity— even well-intention— will only serve the interests of those determined to vilify Mary and thereby discount her (in my opinion) valid characterizations of practices not in the best interests of student-athletes at UNC.”
As to what UNC Greensboro will do about these allegations, the university is limited in what it can reveal publicly.
Due to The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Willingham’s education records are protected under federal law.
In an email interview, Paul Mason, UNCG’s Associate Vice Chancellor of Marketing and Strategic Communication, said that he could not address Willingham’s case specifically, but that “as a higher education institution with high standards for academic excellence and integrity, we [UNCG] take allegations of academic misconduct very seriously.”
In talking about UNC Greensboro’s general approach to acts of academic misconduct, Mason says the university reserves the right to alter a student’s transcript if there is convincing evidence that the student is guilty of violating the Academic Integrity Policy or the Research Misconduct Policy.
“In cases of academic and research misconduct, we have the ability to pursue a range of remedies as appropriate depending on the severity of the misconduct,” Mason asserted. “We believe we have the ability to withdraw a degree, although that has not been a common practice at UNC System universities.”
In an educational system where, according to a survey conducted by Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, “36% of undergraduates admit to paraphrasing/copying a few sentences from Internet source without footnoting it, and 24% of graduate students self report doing the same.” It is difficult to determine if Willingham had intent or was simply careless.
In a phone interview with Kane, Willingham stated, “Whatever I did, I did, and, you know, whatever. There’s nothing I can do about it.” Willingham did not return an email from the Carolinian requesting a public statement.