×

New president of UNH talks fake-classes scandal from his time at UNC

  • James Dean Jr. meets with people before delivering remarks at the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Dean was chosen to succeed Mark Huddleston, who is retiring after 11 years as university president. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • James Dean Jr. prepares to give remarks at the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Dean was chosen to succeed Mark Huddleston, who is retiring after 11 years as university president. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Incoming University of New Hampshire president James Dean Jr. waits to be introduced during an event at the UNH School of Law in Concord on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Dean was chosen to succeed Mark Huddleston, who is retiring after 11 years as university president. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Incoming University of New Hampshire president James Dean Jr. speaks with UNH School of Law dean Megan Carpenter following an event at UNH School of Law in Concord on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Dean was chosen to succeed Mark Huddleston, who is retiring after 11 years as university president. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • James Dean Jr. speaks at the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Dean was chosen to succeed Mark Huddleston, who is retiring after 11 years as university president. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • University of New Hampshire School of Law dean Megan Carpenter speaks during an event for incoming UNH president James Dean Jr. at the law school in Concord on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Dean was chosen to succeed Mark Huddleston, who is retiring after 11 years as university president. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The University of New Hampshire’s next president, James Dean Jr., took over as the top academic official at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013, just before the school’s fake-classes scandal erupted onto the national stage.

Speaking with the Monitor at a meet and greet at UNH School of Law on Tuesday, Dean revisited his time as the school’s provost during the UNC controversy, reaffirming his criticism of the whistleblower who exposed the scheme.

While the classes predated their time at the school, Dean and the school’s chancellor, Carol Folt, in 2014 publicly apologized for the bogus classes, which had been offered since at least the 1990s and covered in the local media starting in 2011.

Dean did so in person, flying to New York for an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

“We made mistakes. Horrible things happened that I’m ashamed of,” Dean told Bloomberg in January 2014. UNC also pledged an outside review, which was conducted by a former federal prosecutor and released later that year, and it instituted a slew of reforms.

But those apologies – and the commissioning of an independent report – came on the heels of a bombshell CNN story that claimed some UNC student-athletes who were steered into “paper classes” were functionally illiterate.

Dean took that aspect of the story harshly, publicly criticizing the research of Mary Willingham, the UNC employee and literacy specialist who brought her data to the national outlet. Following the CNN report, the school’s institutional review board suspended Willingham’s research, saying it violated privacy rules.

Dean on Tuesday said he stood by his critiques of Willingham’s research. Her data just didn’t back up her claims, he said.

“The claim was that we had student-athletes that couldn’t read. And it simply wasn’t true. It wasn’t remotely true,” he said.

He added that he wasn’t defending the university but instead “defending our students.”

“There were too many people who were willing to believe that these student-athletes were unable to read. And I actually thought that there was unfortunately a little bit of a racial subtext to that,” he said.

Back and forth

In addition to his statements to the media, Dean in a faculty meeting called Willingham’s research “a travesty” and “unworthy of this university,” according to a report in Raleigh’s News & Observer.

His comments were criticized by certain members of the faculty – and by a Washington watchdog group, which wrote to Folt to say the university’s treatment of Willingham might have violated state whistleblower laws.

“The effect of these actions is that UNC-CH is perceived as a bully who is intent on publicly smearing a well-meaning employee rather than fairly addressing the substance of the concerns being raised,” the Government Accountability Project wrote to Folt about Dean’s and other administrator’s statements, according to a CNN report.

Willingham defended her research, according to news reports. She left the university claiming retaliation later in 2014, and she sued. She settled in 2015 for $335,000 and wrote a book with Jay Smith, a UNC history professor, about the scandal called Cheated. She also founded Paper Class Inc., a group dedicated to college athletics reform.

The independent review eventually released by the university about the fake classes – dubbed the Wainstein report, after its author, Ken Wainstein – corroborated many of the claims Willingham had made for years about fake classes being used to boost the GPAs of struggling student-athletes. Over 3,000 students took courses that never met, didn’t require meeting with professors and where work was graded by a secretary. But that report never delved specifically into Willingham’s research on literacy.

Three independent reviewers were asked to take a look at her research by UNC, and they agreed with the school that her research was flawed. She pushed back, according to media reports, and said the reviewers had never talked to her or asked to see the raw data. Her research was never released publicly.

Dean said Tuesday criticism of Willingham’s research was never meant to deflect away from the fake courses themselves. They were “two entirely different things,” he said.

“We apologized for the fact that many of the classes did not meet our standards, in any way. We were very up front about that. And so you see two different situations. One in which there was something that was true, and we apologized for it. One in which there was something that was false, and we explained that it was false. And I stand by both of those positions,” Dean said.

Dean stepped down from his role as provost to return to a professorship at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler business school in August 2017. He said he did so in order to have the time to work on a forthcoming book about how business and higher education can work together, and to apply for presidentships elsewhere.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)