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Whistle-Blower Blocked

January 20, 2014

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has revoked a reading specialist and adjunct professor’s permission to discuss her research or otherwise use her data on student athlete literacy, just weeks after she was featured in a network news story on the topic. The university also questioned her methodology and the validity of her findings.

Mary Willingham, who works in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling and teaches an education course, cannot use data that could be used to identify human subjects until she receives permission from the university's Institutional Review Board, it told her last week. Previously, the board determined that review and approval of her research was not necessary because it involved “de-identified” data – meaning that it did not contain personally identifiable information about human research subjects, either to the researchers or the public.

In other words, the board believed it did not have to oversee Willingham’s work because her data couldn’t be linked back to her student subjects by anyone.

Earlier this month, Willingham told CNN she’d worked with 183 Chapel Hill basketball and football players for her research, from 2004-12, while she was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Some 10 percent read below a third-grade level, she said. Willingham also shared anecdotes about students she’d worked with during her career, such as one who was illiterate, and one who couldn’t read multisyllabic words.

Another student asked if Willingham could "teach him to read well enough so he could read about himself in the news, because that was something really important to him," she told CNN. Her quotes didn't identify any students by name or unique characteristics.

It’s unclear, however, if those comments were related to her work as a teacher and adviser or researcher.

Willingham hasn’t published a paper on her research, but has spoken publicly before about her experiences with student literacy at Chapel Hill. She is credited with the blowing the whistle on a no-show course scam involving athletes there that made national headlines and prompted several internal investigations in 2010. (One of those investigations found that scam was isolated to one department, and was not motivated by athletics, but dated back to 1997. The university’s chancellor, Holden Thorp, resigned following the scandal.)

In a statement Friday, the university said the review board had noted, through Willingham’s recent, public statements, that she had “collected and retained identified data,” requiring review board oversight. It did not say which of her statements revealed that.

“All human subjects research requires review by the university’s Institutional Review Board,” a university spokesman said in a separate, emailed statement. “Review and approval must be obtained before the research can begin. In addition, any time there is a change to the research protocol, the researcher must submit an updated application for review and approval. Researchers are expected to describe in detail the data being used in their work. That includes the specific data that a researcher and their collaborators have collected and/or assembled, any further work on the data that is planned, and how the data will be analyzed.”

The review board concluded in 2008 and again 2013 that researchers involved in Willingham’s project could not identify individual subjects and that any codes that could allow linkage to identifiers were “securely behind a firewall outside the possession of the research team,” according to the statement. The board directed Willingham to submit a full application for its review, and said that continued use of her data without its approval would violate university and federal policies protecting human research subjects.

The university also disputed Willingham’s claims that it admits athletes who lack academic preparation.

"I take these claims very seriously, but we have been unable to reconcile these claims with either our own facts or with those data currently being cited as the source for the claims,” Chancellor Carol L. Folt said in a statement posted on the Chapel Hill website. “Moreover, the data presented in the media do not match up with those data gathered by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. For example, only 2 of the 321 student-athletes admitted in 2012 and 2013 fell below the SAT and ACT levels that were cited in a recent CNN report as the threshold for reading levels for first-year students. And those two students are in good academic standing.” (The news report cited that threshold as 400 on the SAT critical reading or writing test, or 16 on the ACT.)

In addition to Folt’s statement, the university published the results of its analysis of eight years of admissions data for athletes, which says 97 percent met the cited threshold. In 2013, it says, 100 percent of admitted student athletes achieved those test scores. The student government released a similar statement, slamming Willingham’s data.

Folt said the university was investigating further the discrepancy between its data and those presented in the CNN report. “We also will do our best to correct assertions we believe are not based in fact,” she added.

The chancellor and other administrators also discussed Willingham’s research at a scheduled Faculty Council meeting Friday. But a faculty member present who did not want to be named or quoted directly said a lengthy presentation about the project focused almost entirely on methodological concerns about Willingham’s assessment tool and how accurately it could be used to correlate scores with grade-level reading readiness, not the review board issue.

The university published a news release late Friday about those findings, accusing Willingham of making a “range of serious mistakes” in her research.

“Carolina has a world-renowned reputation for our research, and the work we have just reviewed does not reflect the quality and excellence found throughout the Carolina community,” Folt said in the release.

Willingham was not in attendance.

Via email, Willingham said that she and her co-investigators will reapply to the review board. She declined to answer specific questions about her case but said: “The gap in academic preparedness between profit sport athletes and students at [National College Athletic Association Division I] institutions perpetuates educational inequality. Until we acknowledge the problem, and fix it, many of our athletes, specifically men's basketball and football players are receiving nothing in exchange for their special talents.”

In an emailed statement, an NCAA spokeswoman said: “Academic success of student-athletes is a core priority for the NCAA and its member schools. NCAA member schools have established academics standards student-athletes must meet so they can compete in their sport. These are completely separate from the admission standards colleges and universities use to admit and enroll students.”

Lewis Margolis, an associate professor maternal and child health at Chapel Hill who has been publicly critical of Division I institutions’ handling of recent sports scandals, said that there had been “exasperation” among the faculty leading up the Faculty Council meeting and subsequent news release. Many professors called for greater transparency after the 2010 revelations at Chapel Hill, he said, and detailed information about why Willingham’s research had been halted was still slow in coming.

“Research is at the core of our mission as a research university,” he said. “This is not peripheral to what we do.”

Susan Michalcyzk, assistant director of the Arts & Sciences Honors Program at Boston College and member of the American Association of University Professors’ standing committee on teaching, research and publication, said via email that review board guidelines have become more stringent over time and that she hoped Willingham would reapply and be able to continue her research in the “complicated” world of student athletes.

“As college professors, our first priority is educating our students and advocating for them,” she said via email. “At times, especially when attempting to deal with controversial topics, such as college sports, the focus (the best interests of our students) can be lost.”

 

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