Willingham accused of plagiarism in parts of master’s thesis

Aug. 05, 2014 @ 06:56 PM

The former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill learning specialist who spoke out about her findings of low literacy levels for some student-athletes and alleged unethical help for school athletes has been accused of plagiarism.

Commenters on the website InsideCarolina.com first discovered passages in former UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham’s’ 2009 master’s thesis that had been plagiarized, said Bradley Bethel, who is a critic of Willingham’s on his blog “Coaching the Mind.” He said that led him to look into the accusations.

Bethel is a learning specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill who works with student-athletes. He said in an email that he began challenging Willingham’s claims after she appeared as a source for several national media outlets on the school’s athletic scandal.

Willingham worked with student-athletes on academics before moving to a new role at the school because of concerns over unethical help for athletes.

Earlier this year, she filed a lawsuit against UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina system alleging that she had faced a hostile work environment and retaliation for speaking out about student-athlete-related concerns.

Through interviews with national and local media outlets, Willingham spoke out about alleged improper help, now-show classes, and, according to her lawsuit, alleged tolerance of plagiarism for some athletes. And in an interview with CNN, she reported findings that more than two-thirds of a sample of UNC-Chapel Hill football and basketball players could not read at a high-school reading level.

In response to her claims, the university hired three academics from other colleges who raised questions about assigning grade-levels to literacy using the data that she had available. None of them could replicate her statistical findings.

Willingham wrote her thesis, “Academics & Athletics – A Clash of Cultures: Division I Football Programs,” for a program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The thesis looks at discrepancies between the academic performance of students and student-athletes in Division I institutions.

In his blog, Bethel accuses Willingham of directly quoting a source -- a 2006 letter from former U.S. Rep. Thomas to the NCAA -- but never referencing it in the paper, among other instances.

“Whereas some of the apparent plagiarism could possibly be attributed to complacency --which is still problematic -- the section in which Ms. Willingham appropriates U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas's words verbatim appears to be blatant misrepresentation,” Bethel said.

A review by the online plagiarism-search tool iThenticate also flagged that passage as problematic.

Willingham’s attorney, J. Heydt Philbeck, said Tuesday that when he looked at the paper there were “two parts that probably should have included the proper citation to make sure it’s clear.”

“Just in my review of it, (there were) two of them that seemed like, a revised copy should be done to give the attribution,” he said. “But as to the others, there’s a lot of it is just … making a lot out of nothing.”

Philbeck said Willingham had no intention other than to give the proper attribution.

 “She, indeed, throughout the whole body of the thesis, gives attribution to others for their thoughts,” he said. “Why would she exclude anything in particular?”

Jeffrey Seglin, a lecturer in public policy and a director of the communications program at the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center of Media, Politics and Public Policy, said it could be just “sloppiness” if everything else in the document is cited and put in quotation markets except for one or two instances. But he said sloppiness “isn’t really an excuse for stealing someone else’s work.”

“Cutting and pasting, and forgetting to attribute sources is wrong – if that’s what’s happened,” he said. “Sloppiness is not a great defense.”

But he also said if a person is a whistleblower, “you make yourself a target.”

Deborah Gerhardt, an assistant professor of law at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, said it’s considered plagiarism when someone takes four or five lines from somebody else’s work without citing it.

“Putting an idea in that’s not yours – that’s plagiarism,” she said.

She said there are different standards for copyright infringement, which has legal ramifications, than for plagiarism, which can be a legal issue, but is often more of a matter of academic integrity.

“The remedy for plagiarism – it’s not a like a normal lawsuit,” she said. “It has a reputation impact, and sometimes it can be worse than that.”

Paul Mason, associate vice chancellor for marketing and strategic communication at UNC-G, said in an emailed statement that under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, the school is unable to provide additional information related to Willingham beyond confirming that she received a master’s in liberal studies from  the school and completed her thesis.

“As a higher education institution with high standards for academic excellence and integrity, we take allegations of academic misconduct very seriously,” Mason said. “We review reported incidents thoroughly and take appropriate action in accordance with University policy.”

Philbeck said he and his client believe the concerns are coming because if you can’t take on the message, you attack the messenger.

“The next step is: we’re moving forward with our lawsuit against UNC-Chapel Hill for its continued retaliation against Mary Willingham and bullying her for exposing a corrupt system,” he said.