Folt acknowledges past ‘failure’ in academic oversight at UNC
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt stood in front of members of the media Thursday morning and said the university is continuing to encourage healthy academic debate over the reading-level controversy while a third-party panel is organized to review the research.
UNC has gone back-and-forth in the media this month with university employee Mary Willingham. Willingham says her data show that some former UNC basketball and football players didn’t know how to read or write, or couldn’t read beyond an eighth-grade level, a claim that has gained national attention and was initially published by CNN.
Folt is dealing with the controversy after her first six months serving in UNC’s top role.
She said UNC is part of a small group of leading research universities that also have highly competitive athletic programs, and the university has acknowledged a past “failure” in academic oversight, referencing the academic scandal investigation into no-show classes, grade rosters with forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes dating back to 1997.
She said the university does not have evidence that these no-show classes were specifically created for student-athletes, but that class enrollment included a number of student-athletes. The unsupervised courses did not reflect university standards, she added.
Now the university is pulling together a panel to review the data set used by Willingham to determine UNC student-athlete reading levels. There is no contract in place yet with these consultants, Folt said, nor does the university know yet how much it will cost.
“It has undermined our integrity and our reputation and has created a very unhealthy atmosphere of distrust,” Folt said of past issues between academics and athletics. “... Moving forward, we have to make sure everyone understands that we do feel accountable and we’re going to learn from that painful history.
“The scrutiny that is taking place here is, of course, part of a much larger national conversation about the role and impact of college sports and even further, about the commitment [we’re] making to ensure that students are receiving what they need to succeed in the classroom, to advance to graduation as well as on the playing field,” Folt added.
This includes changes to academic policies, from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes.
“I believe that here at Carolina that we will always be changing, always be improving, and when we do it right, we’ll always be leading,” she said.
Daniel Nelson, UNC’s Office of Human Research Ethics director, released a statement this week on behalf of the university’s Institutional Review Board. Earlier media reports stated that the UNC IRB suspended approval of Willingham’s research.
Nelson said Willingham never had IRB approval for her research, so there was no reason for a suspension.
In 2008, Willingham sought IRB oversight into whether her research needed approval, and at the time, the IRB determined her research did not involve human subjects, according to the statement. The IRB regulates human subjects research to protect student privacy.
On Jan. 16, the Office of Human Research Ethics determined “we were working with faulty or incomplete information,” also noting that Willingham wasn’t “singled out” and denied that her providing reading-level data to the university triggered an IRB review.
“Rather, it was our realization that the researchers had, in fact, been in possession of named data all along; this was confirmed by multiple sources, including Ms. Willingham’s own statements via the press,” according to Nelson.
At this point, Willingham has the same opportunity as any other employee to apply for IRB research approval, he said.