UNC-CH chancellor calls for civility amid heated debate on athletics, academics

jstancill@newsobserver.comJanuary 22, 2014 

— UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt is calling for respectful discourse in the latest emotional debate about athletics and academics on the campus.

In an email to the campus community Wednesday, Folt reiterated her comments last week about the nature of the public debate surrounding the issue of literacy rates of athletes. UNC-CH learning specialist Mary Willingham has described her research that she said showed that a subset of athletes could only read on an elementary or middle school level, including some who could barely read. Her allegations made national news this month and were discussed Friday at a faculty meeting, where UNC-CH officials questioned the validity of her research.

“In the days since my last message to you, I have been made aware of – and read for myself – examples of heated conversations inside and outside of Carolina regarding many of the issues I addressed: the integrity of our support for student-athletes and their success from admission to graduation,” she wrote.

She did not elaborate, but a university spokeswoman said Folt’s email was prompted by online comments.

“Today, I am asking for a renewed effort by everyone, regardless of your opinions, to encourage civil debate and discourse about these complex issues,” Folt’s email said. “I hope that we can talk about these topics in an informed way without resorting to personal attacks directed at students, faculty or staff members. Carolina character lives in our words and deeds.”

Also this week, the university’s Office of Human Research Ethics released a statement meant to clear up “errors and misrepresentations” regarding the status of Willingham’s research with respect to the university’s Institutional Review Board, which oversees research on human subjects.

Daniel Nelson, the office’s director, wrote that the board did not technically suspend approval for Willingham’s study because she never had that approval in the first place. In 2008, Willingham sought a determination from the board on whether she needed IRB approval; the board determined that its approval was not necessary based on the assurance that Willingham and fellow researchers would be working only with “de-identified” data, meaning that the researchers would not have access to the names or codes matched to individuals.

On Jan. 16, the office took action to correct its previous determination, Nelson wrote, because of “the realization that the researchers had, in fact, been in possession of named data all along; this was confirmed by multiple sources, including Ms. Willingham’s own statements via the press.”

‘A travesty’

Last week, Willingham provided data to Provost Jim Dean at his request, which prompted concern that triggered the board’s action. At a packed faculty meeting last week, Dean tried to discredit Willingham’s methodology and conclusions, calling her use of the data “a travesty” that he said was unfair to athletes and the university.

Some professors said they were worried about the appearance that the administration had leaned on the IRB to halt Willingham’s research.

Nelson said that was not true. “There should also be no implication that my office was pressured to take this action,” he wrote. “The IRB at UNC operates with a very high degree of independence and authority, as it was intended.”

‘Nearly impossible’

Willingham said she met with the IRB office Wednesday to discuss the procedure for reapplying, which requires a new application with signatures and approvals from various departments at the university.

“It looks nearly impossible but I will begin the process over the weekend,” she said in an email.

If the board approves, it would then monitor the research to make sure it conforms to federal, state and university policies, Nelson wrote.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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