Jim Dean and Mary Willingham are not on the same page.
Dean, UNC’s executive vice chancellor and provost, and Willingham, a reading specialist and former athletic tutor, haven’t publicly agreed on much in the past week since Willingham went to CNN with her student-athlete literacy findings.
And Thursday added another chapter to the saga, as UNC provided its most thorough response to the claims since the CNN article’s publication.
Speaking for the first time publicly, Chancellor Carol Folt sent out a message Thursday to the entire UNC community reaffirming that the administration is working to get to the bottom of the findings. Later that day, the University also released its own data meant to dispute Willingham’s, stating that 97 percent of UNC student-athletes throughout the same 8-year period Willingham covered met a CNN threshold for reading skills. And then the day got even busier, with a twist in events that has left Dean and Willingham in disagreement yet again.
On Thursday, Willingham received a letter from the UNC Office of Human Research Ethics saying that the data she had taken to CNN was no longer approved by the University’s Institutional Research Board, an infringement on both federal and UNC policies if she continues to use the research without approval.
The IRB, which includes various faculty members that review the University’s research on human subjects, reports to Dean.
The letter states that her data, which screened Attention Deficit Disorder and learning disorders in student-athletes, identified its participants. This violates the terms of research approval set by the board in 2008 and when the research was re-approved in 2013, according to the letter.
In media reports, Willingham has cited a study of 183 student-athletes between 2004 and 2012, claiming that one men’s basketball player couldn’t read and between 8 and 10 percent of football and basketball players read below a third grade level.
She sent Dean her unidentified data to back these claims Monday before he asked for a spreadsheet with her research subjects’ names.
“This response is inadequate and disappointing,” Dean said in an email to Willingham after she sent him a set of unidentified data. “It is not at all a sign of good faith on your part. I want you to send me the actual spreadsheet that you used to make your claims. It should include names and sports, as you have said that you have this information.”
Dean said in an interview that the reason for the board’s decision was not because she turned the data with athlete names over to him. He said this was not an attempt to dismiss her findings, and that the IRB was looking into her research before Willingham sent him the data.
“Mary’s story is that I forced her to give me…the data with the names and I shut down the research and that is absolutely, categorically false,” Dean said.
The IRB told Willingham the board understood that “(a) you were conducting a secondary analysis using data collected by others for non-research purposes; and (b) you and other investigators would not be able to identify individual student-athletes, i.e., the data were de-identified,” according to the letter, which was obtained by The Daily Tar Heel. The IRB later found neither of those factors were true in Willingham’s research.
“How would I do the research if I didn’t have the names?” Willingham said in an interview. “The study included how they were doing in school, their GPA. From what I understand, the primary investigator can have access to that and you wouldn’t share that in the public because that would be unethical.”
Willingham said she thought she was following IRB rules because as the primary investigator she never released names to anyone until Dean asked her to give them to him.
“It’s a technicality,” she said. “In any kind of institution, if you can get someone on a technicality you can squash their research and their findings.”
In fact, Willingham never even released the data spreadsheet without names to anyone, she only shared her abstract and summaries with CNN for the outlet’s original report.
“She did not give CNN the data, only her summary conclusions,” said Jay Smith, a co-investigator on the research with Willingham, in an email. “So no media outlet has seen her datasheets.”
In terms of Willingham’s use of the names, Dean said the research mixup could be an honest mistake on her part. But he said she would have had to check a box several times on her research application that says she would not use names in her research.
However, all of this doesn’t mean that Willingham’s data is invalid, its approval is only rescinded. The letter states that she can re-submit an application to the IRB for reconsideration, but cannot continue using the data until she does.
“We’re going to go back through the process,” Willingham said. “I grew up with nuns…I’m just going to go right back through the process like Sister Claire would.”
Chancellor Carol Folt made her first public statement on the claims about student-athletes in an email to the campus community Thursday, which was followed by a press release from the University with statistics about SAT scores.
“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 in the email, adding that they were in good academic standing.
The NCAA has also released data on student-athlete SAT scores last week, drawing a national presence to defend the University. According to the press release, 16 out of 29,000 Division I athletes entering college in 2012 scored below a 600 composite on the SAT, and just two of them were football or men’s basketball players. It also states that 68 student athletes scored between a 600 and a 700.
According to UNC, of the 341 of the specially admitted football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball players between 2004 and 2012, only 34 of the players did not meet CNN’s threshold of “college literacy” — a 400 on the SAT critical reading section or 16 on the ACT.
The UNC statement says CNN did not ask UNC for its SAT or ACT data and relied on Willingham’s “observations.”
But Willingham said the data the University released Thursday does not disprove her findings.
“Our numbers are pretty close I think,” Willingham said, adding that the differences probably result from her examining a much smaller cohort of students. “I find that fascinating.”
Willingham said the release is a “great start” but that the University can still do more to improve transparency by releasing SAT and ACT scores, what courses these athletes are enrolled in and separating the statistics by sport.
Dean disagrees the data released by the University Thursday supports Willingham’s findings in any way.
“Absolutely not,” Dean said. “The data released today says that the vast majority of athletes we’ve accepted have very strong verbal and mathematical skills.”
Willingham, who has in the past been very outspoken and not extremely concerned about her status as an employee at the University, is worried about her job security.
“I don’t know what they’ll do tomorrow,” she said Thursday night.
She said this situation got her to asking the question about whether she will have a job at the place she loves come morning, even though Dean said she has not violated any University policies as far as he knows that would result in her termination.
“It’s like somebody died today,” Willingham said Thursday. “I’m very sad. I’m going to keep fighting the fight, beating the drum.”
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