Psychologist who collaborated with Mary Willingham at UNC-Chapel Hill has contract canceled

dkane@newsobserver.comApril 11, 2014 

For more than a decade, UNC-Chapel Hill’s athletic department used neuropsychologist Lyn Johnson to diagnose learning disabilities among newly admitted athletes. Records show her business received tens of thousands of dollars each year for the work.

But in July, after athletic officials learned her data was being used in research that suggested the university was admitting athletes with poor literacy skills, they pulled the plug on her $50,000 annual contract.

“(L)iquidate and finalize all funding for standing order ... will be using a different vendor for this service,” a notation on the canceled invoice on file in the athletic department’s business office said. UNC officials said it is the only record showing what happened to Johnson’s contract.

UNC officials have not explained why they dropped Johnson. But she lost her contract after whistleblower Mary Willingham spoke at a conference on athletics at UNC a year ago and gave them a preview of her findings about athletes’ literacy levels. She listed Johnson as a co-researcher in the study.

Numerous times, correspondence shows the academic support program for athletes had confidence in Johnson’s work. One such letter was written in May, by Tom Timmermans, the assistant athletic director for compliance.

He wrote that her firm, Cognitive Neuropsychology, had “knowledgeable professionals with experience diagnosing adults with disabilities.” He also said the firm had an “established working relationship” with the academic support program and was “sharing information when appropriate and necessary.”

Another letter in 2008 from Robert Mercer, the then-director of the academic support program, shows that when Johnson left another firm that had the contract to test the athletes, he sought for the university to bring the work to the new business Johnson had started. He cited the need to maintain a “continuity of care.”

Johnson declined Friday to talk about her work for the university or Willingham’s research.

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