Willingham speaks out about student-athlete academic reform

UNC advisory group pinpoints problems in classrooms
Feb. 20, 2014 @ 07:36 PM

In her basement office at the UNC Learning Center Thursday morning, adviser Mary Willingham said she’s looking for more people to join her cause to put an end to the “NCAA cartel.”

Willingham, who has made it her life’s work to push for reform within the National Collegiate Athletic Association, was placed in the center of a UNC-Chapel Hill controversy this year, after her widely circulated data, fueled by a CNN report, stated that some former UNC basketball and football players couldn’t read beyond an eighth-grade level and that some could be considered illiterate.

UNC-Chapel Hill administrators are using third-party educational testing consultants to analyze the accuracy of Willingham’s research data. At a faculty council meeting in January, Provost James Dean Jr. called the findings “a travesty.”

Willingham told The Herald-Sun she’s now part of a classic whistleblower case, which includes an attack on her character.

She has worked at UNC-Chapel Hill for more than a decade, most recently with the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling. She said around the time of her performance review last June, her office was moved to the basement of the Student and Academic Services Building and her advising hours were moved to 2 p.m. through 5 p.m., when most faculty committee meetings take place. This was intentional, she said, to halt her participation in such meetings.

She said the university is sitting on an 80-page grievance report she filed last July. The UNC Institutional Review Board, which regulates human-subjects research to protect student privacy, recently altered its decision about Willingham’s research, stating she needs to reapply for research approval because her data could lead to student identification.

She said she won’t move forward with the Institutional Review Board until her grievance is resolved.

Change is needed at the university from the top, down, starting with administration, and that this isn’t just a UNC-centered problem, she said.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m also a realist,” Willingham said. “... I’d like to see this NCAA cartel fall apart and be completely reformed so that it’s fair, so that the people at the top, a bunch of old white guys, aren’t making all the money, and that there’s more money coming down into the institutions to pay for more academic support.”

She said she’d like to see student fees not be used across the country to build university stadiums. She also wants to see caps on coach salaries.

“I just had this hammer out,” Willingham said. “I’m afraid that the only way we can dismantle this machine is to pound away at it, and it’s going to take a lot of us doing it. And I would like to call on people across the country to stand up. It’s time.”

UNC spokeswoman Tanya Moore said in an email that the reading-level data is still being analyzed, and the university will share results when that analysis is complete.

At a UNC Board of Trustees’ committee meeting at the end of January, Provost Dean said the university would release consultant names once they have permission to do so.

The Herald-Sun asked the university for names of these consultants Feb. 12, and the request was forwarded by university communications to the office that handles public-records requests.

Anne Sutton, a public-records paralegal for UNC, said on Wednesday that The Herald-Sun’s requests relating to the reading-level investigation are still being processed.

Willingham said in the Thursday interview that UNC Chancellor Carol Folt has yet to meet with her to discuss her research findings.

The university confirmed that Folt has not met with Willingham.

Willingham added that she is currently having discussions with attorneys and a D.C.-based whistleblower-protection agency.

If she takes legal action, she said, the suit won’t be against an individual but instead against the university.

The university declined to comment on possible litigation.

The Academic Support Program for Student Athletes Advisory Committee, comprised of administrators and faculty members, met Tuesday to discuss strengthening a communications process in which student-athletes feel comfortable voicing academic concerns.

Joy Renner, chair of the UNC Faculty Athletics Committee, said student-athlete advising guidelines will soon be posted to the Faculty Governance website. The university also is examining academic-performance reviews, or comparing student-athlete goals with their progress at UNC.

UNC’s new “advising blitz” model tries to see each student-athlete at least once a semester. Last fall, they advised 531 student-athletes, or 72.4 percent of the student-athlete population.

Faculty also discussed student-athlete complaints of character attacks in the classroom. Committee members have heard reports of some faculty members making derogatory comments to student-athletes, or other students not accepting student-athletes into their work groups in fear that the student-athlete won’t do the work.

“It was hard to listen to, to see what the impact was and how they were feeling,” said Michelle Brown, director of the UNC Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes.

Sherry Salyer, a UNC master-lecturer in the department of exercise and sport science, said she can understand some of those faculty members’ frustrations regarding student-athletes. She said she has a student-athlete in her class that continues to use a laptop, despite laptops being banned in her classroom, and doesn’t participate in small student groups.

“The other student-athletes in the class are absolutely stellar,” Salyer said, “but we’re colored not by them but by the outlier.”

UNC communication studies associate professor Michael Waltman said he’s heard more anecdotes this year than ever before about how student-athletes are treated poorly.

“There’s still a little bit of anger there, but it’s mostly been replaced by sadness,” Waltman said. “I prefer the anger. I hope that this is something that we can address, and I’ve hesitated to say anything before.”

Willingham said she has many faculty members on her side. They choose to remain silent, she said, but she knows about them and feels their support.

“We’re at an institution of higher learning and we’re supposed to be teaching critical thinking and we’re supposed to be teaching about academic freedom and the right to our own opinions,” Willingham said.  “I think I’m an example of that. I’m a Tar Heel. I know it’s hard to believe, but I love this place.”

“Come get me. Get in line,” she added about her critics, “because my life has been complicated but full of joy. Come get me. I just want to leave something behind.”