UNC Rebuts Willingham's Data, Revokes Research Clearance

UNC’s chancellor, provost and admissions director stood before a Faculty Council meeting in mid-January and took turns breaking apart the research that academic adviser Mary Willingham had used to assert that many Carolina athletes were substandard readers with little chance for academic success in college.

“Any claim made on the basis of this data set is virtually meaningless,” Provost James W. Dean Jr. told a standing-room-only crowd, many of whom had come only to hear the University’s retort to Willingham. Dean focused on the part of her research that said that between 2004 and 2012, 60 percent of 183 athletes who were considered upon admission to Carolina to be at risk for academic failure read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels and that 8 percent to 10 percent read below a third-grade level. He declared: “There is absolutely no basis in the data set on which to make this claim.”

Chancellor Carol Folt, who had been silent on the issue since CNN on Jan. 6 featured UNC in a report of its investigation into reading ability of athletes across the country, addressed the council forcefully: “We are really going to talk very specifically about the recent reports in the media. I think I could probably get a bigger audience at this campus than almost any campus in the country to talk about what we do to ensure athletes’ success.

“This has, of course, become very heated. I think it’s important that we reaffirm who we are as an academic community. That’s a community that allows people to disagree with each other, even if the points of view are very extreme.”

A week after the Faculty Council meeting, Folt told UNC’s Board of Trustees that she had assumed the responsibility for the ongoing investigation and for reform of the system.

“We … accept the fact that there was a failure in academic oversight for years that permitted this to continue,” Folt said. “This, too, was wrong and it has undermined our integrity and our reputation and it’s created a very unhealthy atmosphere of distrust.

“I think we all know that to move forward, we have to make sure that everyone understands that we actually do feel accountable and that we’re going to learn from that painful history. And although I believe we’re still in the early stages of reform, we have made significant changes in academic policies and new procedures that are making real differences.”

Willingham, who worked as an academic adviser to athletes at UNC between 2003 and 2010, simultaneously conducted research into athletes’ scholastic abilities while pursuing a master’s in liberal studies at UNC-Greensboro. She earned the degree in 2009. In 2011, as the no-show classes scandal in the department of African and Afro-American studies was unfolding, she began speaking publicly, declaring that in her time as an adviser to athletes she met many who could not read or write at a level acceptable for college work. Willingham said she was familiar with the bogus classes offered in AFAM, which she said dated at least to her coming to UNC in 2003. She said she had complained to the University about the academic irregularities two years before the scandal became public.

CNN, which said its probe “found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level,” led off its report with Willingham’s UNC research.

CNN said it had concluded that “most schools have between 7% and 18% of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level.” The NCAA quickly disputed CNN’s report, saying that “the hard facts and cold truth simply do not bear out the scenario portrayed in its reporting.” Carolina officials also disputed CNN’s work.

The day before the Faculty Council meeting, the University announced that Willingham had lost her research privileges at least temporarily because she had violated policies on protection of individual students’ names.

The University is bound by federal regulations to require researchers who perform human subjects research to obtain prior approval from its Institutional Review Board.

In granting Willingham initial approval for her research, the IRB had concluded that Willingham’s work was not human subjects research, meaning that the researcher could not identify individual subjects and that any codes that could allow linkage to identifiers were securely behind a firewall outside the possession of the researcher. The IRB then rescinded that determination “after it came to the IRB’s attention that the employee’s dataset contained identifiers,” UNC said in a statement. This occurred after media reports made it clear to UNC officials that Willingham had to have known individual students’ information.

“When it began to look as though the data set being discussed had to include individual applications, our IRB became extremely concerned,” Folt told the council.

Willingham did not reveal names publicly, although she said she could provide Coach Roy Williams ’72 with the name of a former member of the men’s basketball team whom she said could not read or write when he was admitted to Carolina. However, going public is immaterial — under Willingham’s agreement with the IRB, she was not supposed to see names.

The IRB said that Willingham would have to submit a new application and that any further use of her data without approval would be a violation.

Willingham told The Daily Tar Heel 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.

“How would I do the research if I didn’t have the names?” Willingham told the paper. “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.”

Her research said further that 8 percent to 10 percent of the 183 athletes she studied read below a third-grade level. That did not make sense to the team of administrators who looked at her work — Dean said South Building put in about 200 staff hours of work on the matter in one week.

Steve Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions, told the council that in the years covered by Willingham’s claims, more than 97 percent of admitted athletes met the college literacy threshold. Willingham’s and CNN’s research determined reading levels in part by using standardized test scores; Farmer added that the College Board and the group that administers the ACT college readiness assessment had not substantiated any correlation between their tests and reading grade levels.

UNC also has officially taken a stand against Willingham’s claim that a basketball player could not read or write.

Dean and Farmer went into great detail in discrediting Willingham’s work, using a slide presentation that included an example of the kind of test given to her 183 subjects that indicated validity problems with determining reading levels from the results of the test.

Dean, like Folt, gave the council an indication of the rising level of frustration Carolina administrators felt with the flood of publicity that accompanied the CNN and Willingham allegations.

“It’s a funny sort of irony here,” Dean said, “that whether you believe the allegations or don’t believe the allegations, it’s been a source of pain across the University.

“To whatever extent you believe what’s been said, it’s painful either because you believe there’s some really ugly facts about the University and about our admissions policy and our student-athletes or that you believe there’s been unfair accusations made — perhaps a combination of the two.

“We’re a university, we’re about discovery, we’re about truth, we’re about analysis. We’re not about opinions, we’re about, ‘Can we actually marshal evidence and use that evidence according to professional standards to be able to make claims about something?’ ”

Dean concluded his presentation by saying: “Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this University. And these claims have been unfair to the students, unfair to the admission officers, unfair to the University.” This was followed by extended applause from most of the approximately 200 people in the room.

By the end of the week, it was nearly impossible to have a conversation on the campus without the subject turning to the flood of media attention to the CNN and Willingham research and how the University was reacting to it.

Even as UNC was disputing Willingham’s research, The News & Observer published a story from an interview with Michael McAdoo ’12, who was kicked off the football team in 2010 because of violations related to having a tutor do improper work on three term papers.

McAdoo told the newspaper that he was told what classes to take and that he was steered by counselors in the athletics department to the AFAM classes later found to be fraudulent.

“I felt like I was done wrong,” McAdoo said, “The University didn’t stand up; they didn’t have my back. They said academics is the first thing they were going to push. ‘You are going to do academics and then play sports.’ But come to find out it just felt like it was all a scam.”

The overwhelming opinion on campus is that the athletics/academics scandal has a long way left to play out.

The AFAM department’s longtime chair, Julius Nyang’oro, was indicted by a grand jury in early December on a felony charge of obtaining property by false pretenses — specifically, taking $12,000 in pay despite not showing up to teach a class.

Nyang’oro, who was forced to resign as chair and subsequently retired, had been found in multiple investigations to be at the source of a long-term practice of giving good grades in courses that were heavily populated by varsity athletes and that involved little academic work.

Nyang’oro has promised to profess his innocence; his first court appearance is scheduled for April 29.

District Attorney James Woodall ’82 (AB, ’85 JD) said there could be a second indictment in the case. He said the person being investigated is not currently a University employee.

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