Whose Scandal?: The UNC scandal and Bradley Bethel

I was disappointed by a recent editorial in the Daily Tar Heel, the award-winning student newspaper of my alma mater, the University of North Carolina. The editorial concerned Bradley Bethel, a former UNC learning specialist who worked to support athletes academically, and his work putting the university’s recent academic-athletic scandal in what he feels is proper context.

A quick note on biases: I am extremely proud of my undergraduate degree from UNC, I worked very hard for that degree (and took none of the aberrant classes), I still am an avid supporter of UNC athletics (all sports, not just the revenue ones), and Bethel and I sometimes communicate on Twitter (we have never communicated outside of that medium).

All that out of the way, the editorial unfairly maligns Bethel’s previous work and his current film project, “Unverified”. That film seeks to challenge what Bethel rightly perceives as a sensationalist media narrative. In the introductory video on the film’s Kickstarter page, Bethel says of the recent UNC scandal, “Now, the true story is not entirely pretty. Some of the facts will be embarrassing for the university. But it is a story much different than the media’s sensationalized narrative.”

Contrast that to the Daily Tar Heel’s opinion that begins, “A film dedicated to proving that UNC’s athletic-academic scandal was imagined by headline-hungry journalists is difficult to take seriously.” The editorial continues to call Bethel’s film “delusional” and an “embarrassment.”

These comments are patently unfair.

Much of Bethel’s point of view comes from challenging claims made by Mary Willingham, a former reading specialist at UNC. Many have even called Willingham a “whistleblower” in the UNC scandal for her work even though, as far as I know, she meets none of the criteria of such. (She did not identify the academic misconduct—there had already been several investigations into the misdeeds by the time she became a national name.)

Willingham drew great public attention for releasing a study of 183 UNC athletes that supposedly demonstrated 60% of them read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels, with perhaps as much as a tenth of those athletes reading below a third-grade level.

Bethel has rightly challenged Willingham’s methodology and conclusions. Three external reviewers came to similar conclusions that discredited Willingham’s findings. It later came to light that Willingham had likely plagiarized significant chunks of her MA thesis, which further challenges her academic credibility. Willingham also seems to have violated FERPA laws.

For his trouble, Bethel has had his mental health questioned by Willingham’s co-author (for their book Cheated), Jay Smith, distinguished professor of history at UNC. Smith is a truly excellent historian (check out his impressive CV here), but writing the provost to express concerns about Bethel’s mental health is, frankly, ghastly.

All that to say, even though prominent media members have used Willingham as a source without questioning the veracity of her findings, she is far from an ideal resource. (Those media members especially include CNN’s Sara Ganim, Pulitzer Prize winner for her work on the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the Raleigh News & Observer’s Dan Kane.)

And I have yet to see an evidence-based refutation of Bethel’s larger points: Willingham and Smith erred in their claims about athlete literacy at UNC, most media members took those claims without scrutiny and made sensationalized claims, and the UNC academic-athletic scandal as a whole has been largely misunderstood because of that. If you contend Bethel is so embarrassing, please first point out how he is wrong.

I am not trying to say that nothing bad happened at UNC—far from it. Though I love my alma mater dearly, I have been deeply, tremendously embarrassed by the events that took place. It is clear that significant academic improprieties occurred. That misconduct was, being as charitable as possible, at least characterized by institutional capture by athletics personnel (though it should give pause that athletes accounted for less than half of the aberrant enrollments in fraudulent classes). Like Bethel, I am not trying deny that substantial wrongdoing occurred.

I do, however, think that the Daily Tar Heel editorial is the most recent unfair attempt to disparage Bethel. At times I disagree with Bethel (who wouldn’t?), but I have found his work to be meticulously researched and argued. He probably goes overboard sometimes. He is not, however, delusional or an embarrassment.

At the end of the movie The Dark Knight, Jim Gordon says of Batman, “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” I don’t know if any of that applies to Bethel—hero, as needed or deserved—but I do know that bringing dissenting facts to light in a respectful fashion is always needed. That’s what Bethel has done and intends to do with his film.

Respectfully providing evidence-based refutations of widely held beliefs is at the heart of academic discourse. Who would be embarrassed of that?