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The Daily Tar Heel

Willingham's research applications raise questions

Mary Willingham
Mary Willingham

Update, 7:24 p.m.: UNC Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jim Dean did not ask Mary Willingham or Lyn Johnson not to speak with media, Tanya Moore, a representative for University relations, said in an email. 

"He did send a letter to Dr. Johnson reminding her that the learning disability test results of our student-athletes was protected under federal law and should not be disclosed," she said in the email.


Documents released from the University today might prove Mary Willingham and members of her research team failed to follow Family Education Rights and Privacy Act guidelines when she was researching learning disabilities of UNC student-athletes.

The Daily Tar Heel obtained Willingham’s Institutional Review Board research application, revealing many inconsistencies between her original research plans in 2008 and 2013 and her actual procedures, which she’s detailed in prior interviews. 

In a CNN article in January, Willingham claimed 60 percent of a group of 183 student-athletes admitted by UNC could only read between a fourth and eighth grade level.

Willingham and her research psychologist Lyn Johnson said the University would not allow them to comment on the matter further in separate interviews earlier today.

In the procedures section of Willingham’s 2013 application, she said she would only use secondary data analysis, meaning the information used in her study would be blind — the data interpreter is unable to attach a score or rating to a specific individual.

But Willingham knew the identities of her subjects — in past interviews with The Daily Tar Heel she admitted using athletes’ grade point averages so she could later publish them alongside her data regarding athletes’ reading levels.

“How would I do research if I didn’t have the names?” Willingham said in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel in January. “The study included how they were doing in school, their GPA.”

The Institutional Review Board has already found that Willingham’s research did not follow the standard protocol for secondary data analysis in regards to anonymity of subjects. After she released her findings earlier this year, the board determined Willingham would need to reapply for board approval.

Willingham later said in a letter to The Daily Tar Heel in February that she believed the IRB acted in good faith when it halted her research.

“Whatever procedural flaw may have marred my initial application to the IRB in 2008, the data I collected between 2005 and 2012 were in no way compromised by it,” the letter says.

“The data are objective scores earned on tests which I did not even administer; the fact that scores could theoretically be traced back to the individuals who earned them does not change the nature of the score earned or the level of the measured ability.”

A privacy breach

UNC Assistant Professor Dana Thompson Dorsey, an expert in education law and FERPA, said Willingham's actions could be considered a violation of FERPA if she released identifiable information about students without their permission.

"Once you can identify the person — either because their name is on it and they didn't give permission or it's very specific information and their name isn't on it and there's only a small amount of people it can be applicable to — then it is an education record," Thompson Dorsey said.

"FERPA deals with the dissemination of information without the person’s permission. Of course it has to be their education records."

Willingham has publicized the results of her data through multiple news outlets, even coming close to naming the athletes she worked with in a Tweet from her personal Twitter account in April.

“The ‘05’ UNC basketball champs starting 5 +1 took a combined 69 paper classes,” Willingham’s tweet read. “truth=transcripts=transparency. A real education= #ncaareform.”

In its guidelines, FERPA prohibits anyone from releasing identifiable academic information about students.

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"I guess that's identifiable, there could only be so many starting players on that team," Thompson Dorsey said.

In response to Willingham’s tweet, UNC’s Faculty Athletics Committee released a statement about preserving students’ privacy.

“Protected information is not within the right of any University employee to make public unless authorized by the students,” the statement reads.

In the “Identifiers” section of her 2013 research application, Willingham did not indicate she would be receiving names or birth dates from subjects, despite saying in more recent interviews that she knew both of these identifiers.

According to an email to Willingham from Richard Southall, a co-investigator on the project, “this data set also contains independent variables of race, gender, major and sport.”

The Southall email was also released in a public records request today.

The lack of anonymity for the athletes in the study has the potential to transform into a HIPPA violation, while the pulling of student education records without authorization from the students could be a FERPA infraction, according to Bradley Bethel, a current athletic learning specialist at UNC and a critic of Willingham’s research methods.

Bethel said research doesn’t typically qualify as a legitimate educational interest at UNC, which is a criterion for employees to pull a students’ educational records under FERPA.

“Once she was done working with athletes she had no legitimate educational interest to access their records and furthermore she had no legitimate educational interest to maintain their records,” Bethel said in a phone interview Thursday.

It’s UNC who could lose out if Willingham violated FERPA — Thompson Dorsey, the education law expert, said the federal government could pull some of UNC's funding if it finds the University didn't have safeguards to prevent Willingham from acting improperly.

"Particularly it's based on if they don't have proper record keeping processes in place," Thompson Dorsey said. "That way people don't have access to records that shouldn't have access to it. That's how FERPA is applied by the federal government."

‘A gag order’

In her 2008 application, Willingham said she would use data that comes from private information and falls under the protection of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). But she said she would code the data and not have access to the codes.

The Daily Tar Heel also received the consent forms signed by the athletes before they were tested by psychologist Lyn Johnson for Willingham’s research.

“I have been informed that the data from these instruments may be used for the purposes of research; for example, to evaluate the reliability of a test or to assess the cognitive effects of different medications,” the form, which the athletes had to sign to be used in the study, states. “My identity, however, is detached from these data before they are ever used, and can never be discovered or revealed.”

When reached for comment, Johnson declined, stating she was instructed by UNC Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jim Dean to not comment.

“I was told by the Provost that I could not discuss any of the data I collected,” Johnson said.

Willingham confirmed that she and Johnson had been instructed not to talk by Dean.

“We have both been told not talk about the data by the Provost — I would call it a gag order,” Willingham said, via text message.

In a January email with David Borasky, deputy director of the Office of Human Research Ethics at UNC, Willingham said she would like to de-identify her data set and turn over the research to a separate team of content area experts.

“The 'team' would be formed at another institution to conduct an analysis of the data obtained during the primary data collection from 2004 - 2012,” Willingham said in the email.

Willingham said she already discussed this option with Borasky during a meeting prior to when the email was sent.

Administrative response

Willingham first aired her concerns to Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jim Dean in a July 30 email. She met with Debbi Clarke, who serves as an advisor to Dean’s Student-Athlete Academic Initiative Working Group, in October, but Dean says she refused to turn over her data because of privacy concerns.

Dean and Willingham met in person Jan. 13, and she eventually turned over her data set to him.

In an email to senior class officer Sasha Seymore, who also played basketball on the junior varsity basketball team during the 2013 season, Willingham argued her research methods were not flawed and accurately portray student athlete reading levels at UNC.

“This will now have to be solved in a court of law which will involve more bad publicity,” Willingham told Seymore.

Willingham repeatedly emailed top administrators about death threats she had received from groups she said were linked with Inside Carolina and other Twitter accounts. In a March email to Harold Woodard, associate dean and director of the Center of Student Succes and Academic Counseling, she said she would need to take personal days when the outside review of her research was released because of the response to her research in January.

UNC paid for an outside review of Willingham’s research earlier this spring, and it was determined that her research methods, which relied on the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults as well as other measures, were not an appropriate way to evaluate literacy.

The three outside reviewers all determined this separately.

But as her research has come under intense scrutiny in the last six months, Willingham has stuck to her sentiments expressed in her original email to Dean in July.

“We still, however, have a problem that needs to be addressed,” Willingham said in the July email. “Unless we offer intensive reading instruction and a course of curriculum for our profit sport athletes, academic fraud will continue.”

Jenny Surane and Amanda Albright contributed reporting.

Contact the desk editor at university@dailytarheel.com.