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Why Mary Willingham's Credibility is Important

Given that much of her case against UNC is based on her personal anecdotes and experiences, the latest revelation that Willingham may have plagiarized parts of her master's thesis is another blow to her personal credibility.

Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

Well isn't that interesting?

The ongoing saga of Mary Willingham and her crusade against UNC took an intriguing twist this weekend when it was discovered she may have plagiarized parts of her master's thesis. Making it all the more ironic is that the alleged plagiarism was discovered by posters on the Inside Carolina message boards. You will recall that the academic prong of The Great Unpleasantness was given a rocket boost by the discovery of plagiarism on a paper from Michael McAdoo by NC State message board posters.

You can read the evidence of the alleged plagiarism and decide for yourself. But if these allegations are found to be true, this is a game changer, and here's why: this thesis is the seed from which the legend of Mary Willingham has grown. Research for this thesis is ostensibly why she started studying reading levels of athletes, and the thesis is what Sara Ganim offered as Willingham's credentials for being an expert in the January CNN report. If the thesis is somehow found to be poisoned, then is any fruit gained from the original seed poisoned as well?

This finding is significant because the master's thesis is front and center in the discussion. This is not something she wrote 15 or 20 years ago and has no bearing on her allegations or the current situation. This paper was produced supposedly using research gathered over a number of years during her tenure as a learning specialist at Carolina (although that research only appears in one paragraph in a 30-page paper). In other words, how this paper was put together is entirely germane to the current situation.

Let's be clear. Even if Willingham plagiarized parts of her thesis, that does not mean her allegations against UNC are untrue. But aside from the dripping irony and apparent brazen hypocrisy, it does speak to Willingham's credibility. And why is that important? Because at the end of the day, all that has been presented in Willingham's case against UNC are her own conclusions, observations, and anecdotes.

Mary Willingham is no Edward Snowden. She is not a whistleblower in the sense that she is revealing internal secrets based on documents obtained from UNC. Everything that has appeared in the media, whether written by Ganim or Dan Kane or Paul Barrett or any of the other fawning press attention she has received, is based solely on what she has said happened. There are no documents, emails, or other tangible evidence that support her claim that athletes were steered to no-show classes to preserve eligibility. The data and methodology she used to come to her conclusions about the reading abilities of student-athletes has never been made public. The only hard data she has shared publicly are descriptions of student grades and enrollments based on transcripts that she likely should not have had access to.

If anything, this case has been characterized by the fact that there has been no real corroboration to her claims of academic malfeasance on the part of UNC. Not a single tutor, academic staff member, or student-athlete has come forward to back up anything she has said. The closest she has come is having Michael McAdoo and Rashad McCants offer comments on their experiences at UNC, and both of them face credibility issues of their own.

Since Ganim's article was published in January, there have been a litany of challenges to Willingham's credibility. Chief among these were the refutation of her research findings by three experts retained by UNC to review her conclusions. But there was also the research paper fragment which she claimed received an A-minus and even she had to back off from. There was also the controversy over her IRB research application and revealing enrollment and grade data for both the 2005 basketball team and 2013 football team (certainly the latter she would have had no reason within the bounds of her position at UNC) in possible violation of FERPA and HIPAA regulations, plus differing accounts of her meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt that led to her resignation from the university. Now she faces the possibility that she has engaged in the same kind of academic misconduct she has railed against.

So again, what does any of this have to do with academic fraud at UNC? The answer would be not much, if it weren't Willingham's recollections and research that were the crux of the allegations she made. The more interesting observation may be how the media responds to this development. If the first 24 hours are any indication, the response will be a collective yawn. One of the primary criticisms of the handling of this entire episode is that Kane, Ganim, Barrett, and others have taken Willingham at her word without proper vetting of her claims or her research, and there is a feeling they have stood by her when there these claims were challenged. There has always been some wiggle room as to these credibility challenges, such as the data sets and methodology. If this plagiarism is proven, there is no wiggle room here.

On the other hand, one of the criticisms leveled at UNC supporters has been the tactic of attacking the messenger, as Willingham has been subjected to fierce opposition as the public face of the inquiry into and response to academic misconduct. Then again it's hard not to attack the messenger when the messenger is all there is. There is no smoking gun, no hard evidence to back up her claims. All she has provided is her version of events, and once again her credibility has taken a significant hit.

When the leading crusader against academic fraud at UNC is suspected to have participated in academic fraud herself, it is a big deal. Again, that does not change the fact there were academic irregularities at Carolina, but no one has denied that. Still some of the initial characterizations of these allegations of plagiarism on Willingham's part as the latest volley in a pissing match miss the mark. If this is true, it calls into question anything she has written or claimed on the subject. Remember Willingham is the same person who Jay Smith has called "the most ethical person I know", so her credibility is clearly fair game here. (Smith has also said "in cases of suspected academic dishonesty...the presumption should be guilty until proven innocent". It is also curious to note all of the comments on the Paper Class Inc. blog, including the ones where Smith mounted a vigorous defense of Willingham and comments on her ethics, have been removed).

More on this story as it develops.