UNC won’t release records from Willingham’s research

dkane@newsobserver.comFebruary 27, 2014 

Mary Willingham in a photo from the UNC Chapel Hill Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling web page.

UNC-Chapel Hill officials said Thursday they would not release data at the center of a dispute about the literacy skills of some athletes, citing a federal law that protects student education records from becoming public.

The decision to withhold the data is the latest example in which the university has cited the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to prevent the release of records that would help shed light on a long-running academic scandal that has roiled the university for more than two years.

Last month, whistle-blower Mary Willingham, a learning specialist who formerly worked with athletes, created a firestorm when CNN reported her findings that 60 percent of 183 athletes specially tested over an eight-year period could not read at the high school level. She said another 10 percent could not read above the third-grade level.

Her claims drew a harsh rebuttal from UNC Provost Jim Dean, who called Willingham’s research a “travesty” at a faculty council meeting. He said she had misinterpreted the test scores and had exaggerated the ability of those tests to determine reading levels. Willingham, who blew the whistle on years of no-show classes within the African studies department to The News & Observer in 2011, said she stands behind her research.

She has contended, and other records obtained by The N&O show, that the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes used the no-show classes to help keep athletes eligible to play sports. Athletes made up 45 percent of enrollments in the bogus classes, which date as far back as the mid-1990s.

The N&O filed a records request to obtain the data, with any identifying information for the athletes redacted. This would have allowed the public to review the data without potentially embarrassing any particular athletes.

But Regina Stabile, an attorney for the university, denied the request.

“There are no public records responsive to your request,” she wrote. “The records you seek are protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.”

The N&O also has asked Willingham to provide the data. She has said she could not on the advice of attorneys.

Dean has said the university is hiring an independent consultant to evaluate the special testing. That consultant has not been named. The scandal continues to garner national attention, including a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek that is now hitting the stands.

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando

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