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UNC board suspends whistle-blower Willingham’s research on literacy level of athletes

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/16/20/55/a2mjd.Em.138.jpeg|395
    - Courtesy of Andrew Muscato
    UNC's Mary Willingham in a photo from the documentary “Schooled: The Price of College Sports”
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/16/21/38/3WiFR.Em.138.jpeg|458
    - UNC News Services
    UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt

UNC-Chapel Hill announced Thursday evening that its research review board had suspended whistle-blower Mary Willingham’s work on the literacy levels of university athletes.

The university said that its institutional review board, which governs research projects, found that Willingham had released data that could potentially identify research subjects.

Willingham’s research indicated more than half of 183 athletes screened for their reading skills over an eight-year period could not read beyond the eighth-grade level; it was based on tests the university administered to athletes admitted despite concerns they might be academically challenged. She said roughly 10 percent of those students were functionally illiterate; among them a men’s basketball player who she said could not read.

The research, publicized on CNN last week, helped kick up more concerns about the academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill that involved dozens of lecture-style classes that never met. Willingham, a former learning specialist with the tutoring program for athletes, blew the whistle on those classes to The News & Observer in 2011. Athletes made up nearly half of the enrollments in those classes.

But university officials disputed the findings and sought to see the data. Earlier this week, Willingham turned over data to Provost Jim Dean, who said he wanted to see it to determine how she arrived at her findings. Willingham said at the time that she had not wanted to turn over the data for fear she would violate research regulations.

Willingham couldn’t be reached Thursday night after the research suspension was announced. Her co-investigator on the research project, Richard Southall, said he didn’t know when the university was saying that the violation occurred.

“My question is, ‘Did that violation occur when the data was forwarded on to the provost?’ ” said Southall, director of the College Sports Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

Dean said in a statement that was not the case.

“Ms. Willingham had said a number of times that she had identified data, and in fact had shared some pieces of it ... in connection with earlier investigations,” Dean said. “The (review board) had decided to look into her case before she finally turned the data set over to me.”

He added that Willingham “did not have the authority to use identifiable data because to do so would have required (review board) ... approval, which she did not have.”

Southall said Willingham’s research could resume after she has met with the board to explain what happened and what steps she will take to protect her data. He anticipated that could take a few weeks.

It is unclear whether the suspension would prevent Willingham from discussing the research she has already done.

Chancellor weighs in

The development came after UNC Chancellor Carol Folt jumped into the debate over Willingham’s research. She released a statement questioning the work.

“I take these claims very seriously, but we have been unable to reconcile these claims with either our own facts or with those data currently being cited as the source for the claims,” Folt said in a statement.

Folt also said SAT and ACT scores for athletes enrolled for the past two years do not reflect the subpar reading levels that CNN reported.

“For example, only two of the 321 student-athletes admitted in 2012 and 2013 fell below the SAT and ACT levels that were cited in a recent CNN report as the threshold for reading levels for first-year students,” Folt said. “And those two students are in good academic standing.

“Nevertheless,” she continued, “we are investigating all the claims being made and, if they are found to have merit, I will take all appropriate actions. We also will do our best to correct assertions we believe are not based on fact.”

Willingham, the former learning specialist for the athletes’ tutoring program, said she stands by her work, which focused on athletes who were given special testing before they began their first year in school. She noted that Folt only cited data that is outside of Willingham’s period of study: between 2004 and 2012.

“She’s not responding to my data,” said Willingham, who works at UNC in a different job away from athletes.

The students admitted in 2012 and 2013 came a year after the university learned through The News & Observer’s reporting that the African and Afro-American Studies department was creating lecture-style classes that never met. The classes required term papers that typically received high grades and likely were never read, according to a UNC-backed investigation.

The university later released more data showing that 10 percent of the 341 athletes admitted for special talents during the period of Willingham’s study – active students from 2004 to 2012 – were below a threshold CNN used to identify athletes with subpar reading skills. Those 341 athletes were recruited for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.

The university has not directly responded to Willingham’s research findings.

‘Capability to succeed’

Of that 10 percent, or 34 students, the university said 20 of them either graduated or remain enrolled and are in good academic standing. Ten left UNC academically eligible to return, and the remaining four left the university academically ineligible.

“We evaluate every student as carefully as we know how,” Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said in a statement. “The primary criterion for admission for all students, including student-athletes, is the student’s capability to succeed academically at the university.”

Folt, in her statement, said that seven investigations have delved into the scandal. She said despite those investigations and the dozens of reforms produced, “this continues to be a painful journey for the Carolina community, and I will not ignore the lessons learned.”

The university has cited those investigations in contending the scandal is not about athletics because nonathletes were enrolled in slightly higher numbers and received the same high grades. Numerous records and interviews have shown, however, that the athlete tutoring program knew the classes didn’t meet and were easy.

On Wednesday, former football player Michael McAdoo told The N&O that he was in four no-show classes. He said the tutoring program steered him to those classes, including the one that led to a criminal fraud charge against Julius Nyang’oro, the former African studies department chairman. That class was full of football players.

The university has declined to provide additional information that would shed light on the scandal, such as the numbers of football and men’s basketball players enrolled in the earliest identified no-show classes.

The scandal is shaping up to be the first major test in Folt’s first year on the job. She said she still has many questions, “and I am seeking to understand the complete picture of what additional work we need to do in this area.”

Over the course of the week, faculty members and media outlets have called for more transparency on the academic scandal. Folt indicated a willingness but did not provide specifics.

“It is our responsibility to address these issues,” Folt said, “the people involved, and the media attention being generated by them, very thoughtfully and thoroughly.”

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando
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