Newly released records of UNC-Chapel Hill whistleblower Mary Willingham’s research into the literacy skills of athletes who struggled in school are drawing fire from critics who say she wasn’t truthful about the intent of her research or her efforts to protect the identities of the athletes who had been tested.
Six years ago, Willingham was a learning specialist for athletes when she launched a research project into the high incidence of learning disabilities that she saw among some athletes as they arrived on campus. The university’s research approval board told her she didn’t need its OK to do the project because she was working with previously collected data, and she had attested that data could not be tied back to individual athletes.
But she drew national attention in January by claiming in a CNN report that her research showed 60 percent of 183 athletes tested over an eight-year period could not read at a high school level, and 10 percent were functionally illiterate.
Six years ago, she also told the research board that even though nearly two-thirds of the 46 athletes tested showed learning disabilities such as an attention deficit disorder, “(A)ll 46 students were successful during their first few semesters in college. With the addition of Supplemental Instruction, a systematic educational approach used in core academic subjects, the (learning disabled) students did almost as well as the non-disabled students.”
Yet Willingham has now blown the whistle on what turned out to be more than 200 suspected or confirmed lecture-style classes that never met and dated back to the mid-1990s. Athletes made up 45 percent of the enrollments despite accounting for roughly 5 percent of the undergraduate student body
Critics say the way she sought approval for her research provides more evidence she can’t be trusted on her claims. A panel of three independent experts on literacy testing, hired by UNC, said last month that her findings were seriously flawed, though they also said they lacked enough information to draw a true picture of how well the athletes tested could read.
Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor at UNC, tweeted that her research application represented “(n)umerous ethical, legal violations.” Others said she had been dishonest in her research and shouldn’t be trusted in her crusade to reform college athletics.
“Her research application is at best inaccurate and at worst fraudulent, and given this information any conclusions drawn from this tainted research must receive the highest level of scrutiny,” wrote Chris “Doc” Kennedy, a regular contributor to the Tar Heel Blog fan site.
The information about Willingham’s research application was the basis for the university’s research approval board halting her research in January. It was released by the university Thursday afternoon; The News & Observer had requested it six weeks ago.
Willingham, who recently resigned from UNC, said at the time of the research application in 2008 that she was hiding the use of the no-show classes. She has previously admitted she wasn’t truthful about what she witnessed during her seven years in the tutoring program until she disclosed the no-show classes to The News & Observer in interviews three years ago. That information led to an N&O public records request to UNC that ultimately exposed the classes.
Willingham said she did not think it was wrong to have checked the box on the application stating that she could not track the data back to the athletes. She said the neuropsychologist hired to test the students, Lyn Johnson, largely filled out the application, did the analysis and “coded” the data so that Johnson would not have access to the names of the individuals.
Johnson has declined repeated requests to be interviewed. She is not listed on the application, but her name is on an abstract about the research.
But Willingham said she needed the test score information as part of her job in helping the athletes learn. Others could not link the data back to individual athletes, she said, and none have been identified.
“I was trying to do it the right way,” she said.
As for steering the research toward reading level scores, Willingham said she saw little difference in identifying learning disabilities versus reading levels. She maintains her findings are accurate.
She also said that she informed university officials of her evolving research. UNC correspondence shows that she told Provost James W. Dean Jr. about the subpar reading skills of the 183 athletes tested in an email on July 18.
“These numbers speak to the presence at UNC of a significant population of athletes unprepared for the rigors of University classrooms,” Willingham wrote.
A coming complaint
Willingham has also drawn criticism for making statements about athletes in suspect classes. Last month, she tweeted that six athletes on the 2005 men’s basketball team that won the national championship were in 69 “paper” classes. Among those six were the starting five players, she tweeted.
The university’s Faculty Athletics Committee criticized that release of information and called for the university to investigate.
One of Willingham’s biggest critics is Bradley Bethel, whom UNC hired in 2011 as a learning specialist for athletes just as the no-show classes had been exposed. Bethel does not dispute there was a scandal. He told Chancellor Carol Folt in an email last summer – one he hadn’t expected to become public – that there have been “many student-athletes who were specially admitted whose academic preparedness is so low they cannot succeed here.”
But he has accused Willingham of being deceitful and of embellishing the facts to attract attention.
Bethel said Friday that he was going to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services because he thinks Willingham may have violated student privacy rights. Learning disability diagnoses would be protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
He said he thinks that Willingham produced the reading-level findings and has improperly released academic data on some UNC athletes to push for reforms in college athletics because she’s gotten caught up in the media spotlight.
“I believe enough in fellow educators that her intentions at some time were good, but the problem is at some point she became insistent that she become the one to bring about that change,” he said.
Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando