A former interim dean of UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences has sent a letter to Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Jim Dean, challenging their claims that the university was not admitting athletes unable to read at a high-school level.
Madeline Levine, a highly honored professor emeritus, said that as a dean, she was made aware of instances in which the university has admitted athletes with substantial academic challenges, including one she suspected was “functionally illiterate” during her tenure.
Levine also accused the university of resisting efforts to get to the bottom of a long-running academic fraud scandal that is drawing sustained national attention since it made The New York Times’ front page on New Year’s Day. She said Dean took the wrong tack two weeks ago in publicly lambasting whistle-blower Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist in the athletes’ tutoring program. Willingham said her research found that more than half of 183 athletes specially tested for learning deficiencies over an eight-year period could not read at a high-school level.
“Mary Willingham was courageous in speaking out about her experience as a reading specialist and academic counselor for such students,” Levine wrote. “It is appalling that the highest officials at UNC – before it became clear that attacking a whistle-blower is not a smart PR move – mounted a concerted public attack on the accuracy of Ms. Willingham’s statistical analysis and, by implication, against her personally, while steadfastly refusing to engage with the core issue that concerns her: the exploitation of student-athletes and the concomitant abuse of the academic values by which a great university should live.”
Levine, 71, is the highest-profile UNC official to challenge the university over its handling of the scandal. She served as interim dean in the 2006-07 academic year, is a professor of Slavic languages and twice has headed that department. She won the university’s Thomas Jefferson Award in 2005, an honor given by the faculty to the professor whose “teaching, writing and scholarship” best reflects the ideals and objectives of the nation’s third president.
Folt and Dean could not be reached for comment. Both took their positions in mid-2013, well after the scandal was exposed, but now have the responsibility to try to set the university on the proper course.
On Thursday, Folt responded to Levine in an email, saying she valued the input and was passing the comments along to Dean and to athletic director Bubba Cunningham. “I can assure you that I and the new leadership team take the past athletic and academic issues very seriously,” Folt wrote. “We also want to be clear in saying that we accept accountability for the past and are continuing to learn as a community from those painful lessons.”
Last week, Folt said the university admits responsibility for the scandal and acknowledged it had an athletic component with the disproportionate number of athletes enrolled in the no-show classes. She said UNC needs to get to the bottom of the scandal, but she did not provide specifics as to how she would do that.
Dean, meanwhile, had a similar message Saturday when he traveled to New York City and met with a Bloomberg Businessweek assistant managing editor, Paul Barrett, who has written several columns this month chastising UNC over its handling of the scandal. Barrett reported that Dean was launching an internal study into the history of the African and Afro-American Studies Department, which is at the heart of the scandal, and was also going to look into athletes’ clustering in certain majors and courses.
UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon said Dean’s plans do not rise to the level of another probe.
“The University has not launched a new investigation into the past academic irregularities,” she said in an emailed statement. “What ... Dean is doing with the department is looking at historical research. As part of a new leadership team that started last July, he’s interested in better understanding the formation of the department as part of our ongoing efforts to assess the overall academic environment at the University.”
Meeting with provost
In interviews, Levine has said she did not know about the no-show classes at the heart of the scandal. A UNC-backed investigation found more than 200 lecture-style classes confirmed or suspected of having never met, that date back into the mid 1990s. Students were typically assigned a paper to be turned in at the end, and the investigation found little evidence those papers were read. They almost always received high grades.
Athletes accounted for 45 percent of the enrollments, well above their proportion in the student body.
But Levine wrote in her letter that she had concerns while she was interim dean that the university was admitting athletes who could not do college-level work.
“During the year that I served as interim dean I was made aware of the serious academic deficiencies that some of our newly recruited athletes would have to overcome if they were ever to succeed at UNC,” Levine wrote. “From what I was told ... I thought it highly probable that one of these students was functionally illiterate.”
She wrote that she went to the university provost, who was then Bernadette Gray-Little, now chancellor at the University of Kansas.
She said she was “told what I already knew – that the decision had been made to grant special admission to this student and there was nothing to be done about it by then. That was true, but I still feel guilty that I let the matter drop and did not publicly express my dismay.”
Gray-Little could not be reached. A spokesman, Jack Martin, said Gray-Little does not remember talking to Levine about the issue.
N&O seeks data
Levine has not seen Willingham’s data on athletes’ reading levels, and admitted the possibility that it could be flawed. Dean, in a presentation before the faculty council meeting, said Willingham had misread vocabulary scores from a Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults in such a way that she had overstated the athletes’ reading challenges. He called her research “a travesty.”
Dean did not describe all of Willingham’s research. He did not tell the faculty that the athletes were also given a written component of the SATA test in which Willingham said some also performed poorly.
The College Board, which administers the SAT test for high school students, said the SATA test is commonly used to measure a student’s academic achievement in reading.
Willingham said she stands by her work, but the university’s institutional review board, which oversees research, stopped her out of a fear she had not removed information that would identify individual athletes. The board told her she needed to get its approval in order to continue. The N&O is seeking the data from UNC and Willingham.
In an interview Wednesday, Levine said Dean’s presentation amounted to an attempt to misdirect the public away from the larger issue of the long-standing academic fraud, how it started and festered for so many years, and how it helped academically challenged athletes maintain their eligibility to play sports. She called for an independent investigation.
“The evidence has been there, and it’s been there prior to (Willingham) going public,” Levine said. “But it’s a tried and true diversionary measure to just angle in on something small and try to distract attention from something much larger behind it.”
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