Mary Willingham's research approval up in the air

When she first proposed researching the literacy rates of UNC’s student-athletes, Mary Willingham was one of about 3,000 applications that the Institutional Review Board receives each year.

But what has happened to Willingham’s research since then is rare — not only has its validity been called into question, but some worry the board’s response could have implications for the research environment at UNC.

And now, Willingham says she might not apply for approval from the board again.

The board twice determined, in 2008 and 2013, Willingham did not need approval because she said she was not identifying student-athletes by their names, said Daniel Nelson, director of the Office of Human Research Ethics, which oversees the board.

The board, which includes five faculty committees, is a federally mandated group at UNC.

The determination that a researcher doesn’t need board approval happens about 700 times out of the 3,000 submissions.

But when the board found out Willingham was in fact using identifiers in her research, members decided she would need to apply for approval, he added.

“We never approved (her research) because of the nature of the research as it was described to us,” he said.

He said usually the researchers, research subjects or an investigator’s colleagues come to him with potential violations.

“If I look at the whole sphere of thousands of studies, there might be 50 to 60 reports per year of something that’s happened, and most of them are not a big deal,” Nelson said. “There might be 10 to 20 times a year where we have to suspend the study or take other action … That’s the bucket I’d put this situation in.”

Willingham said she doesn’t know when or if she will reapply for approval. An outside group, the Student-Athletes Human Rights Project, is examining the validity of her data. The group said in a statement it requested Willingham’s data from UNC and was denied.

Willingham said the board’s decision was a challenge to her own research and academic freedom at UNC in general.

“I think they’re all in bed together, that’s been the problem all along. They all report to each other, there’s no independent agency — they report to the provost, and he’s a void,” she said.

Echoing what Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jim Dean and Chancellor Carol Folt have said, Nelson said there was no outside pressure involved in the board’s decision-making.

“There has been an implication that somebody in the South Building pressured us,” he said. “That’s certainly not the case. We’ve been encouraged to approach this as we would with any study by any researcher.”

Peter Bonilla, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said though it is unclear whether it’s happening at UNC, Institutional Research Boards have been used for improper purposes at other universities.

“It does a lot to illustrate the way IRB’s authority can be used to stifle academic freedom and expression if they aren’t used carefully,” he said. “It’s important for people to be aware that at some campuses this doesn’t happen.”

Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor, said it is unclear if there were outside influences, but it is troubling based on how it appears.

“It looks bad, it smells bad. I don’t know if it was bad, but it smells bad,” he said.

Nelson said it is too soon to determine what punishment Willingham might face if she conducts further research without approval.

“We have an important job to do, when UNC receives grant funding it’s because we promise we know what the rules are and we agree to play by them.”

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