UNC system stays out of research dispute between Willingham, UNC-Chapel Hill

Posted by Dan Kane on June 3, 2014 

UNC system President Tom Ross is showing little interest in jumping into the research dispute between whistleblower Mary Willingham and UNC-Chapel Hill that has produced claims of retaliation.

At an editorial board meeting of The News & Observer on Tuesday, Ross said the real issue wasn’t whose interpretation of the data about athletes’ reading ability was correct, but whether UNC-CH’s athletic department was successfully blending academics with athletics.

He noted the UNC system has ordered reforms to try to ensure the academic mission of all UNC schools is not being corrupted by athletics. He said he expected more regulations will come as the UNC system works to provide more transparency in athletic departments’ finances.

The Government Accountability Project, a national nonprofit law firm that supports whistleblowers, had written to Ross last month asking him to investigate the way UNC-CH has treated Willingham after she helped expose dozens of lecture-style classes in the African studies department that never met. Willingham was moved to a different office after going public, and UNC officials disparaged her research into the literacy abilities of a subset of athletes tested over an eight-year period. She resigned at the close of the academic year.

A letter the UNC system’s general counsel, Thomas Shanahan, wrote to the accountability project last week largely defended UNC-CH’s handling of Willingham, a former learning specialist for athletes, noting three outside reviewers sided with the university about the reliability of her research. He said Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official recently hired to further investigate the academic fraud, has the latitude to handle his probe “in whatever way he deems necessary,” which would allow him to examine retaliation claims.

Ross didn’t speak directly about Willingham’s claims about academic preparedness of athletes. But he pointed to the university’s efforts to tighten academic standards for the athletes’ admission.

“It’s my understanding they’ve already done that, changed their admission requirements,” Ross said.

UNC-Chapel Hill officials have acknowledged cutting the number of athletic special admissions over concerns that too many athletes were being admitted who couldn’t succeed academically. But they have adamantly denied Willingham’s claims that some athletes had been admitted who were functionally illiterate.

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