Questions arise about UNC student-athlete research, privacy concerns

May. 17, 2014 @ 08:53 PM

Ethics officers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill never approved Mary Willingham’s research into student-athletes because, they wrote, it didn’t seem to meet a threshold that would require approval.

But that, according to Daniel K. Nelson, director of UNC’s Office of Human Research Ethics, was because her study – specifically an examination of the incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities among freshman student-athletes – would use secondary data analysis and wouldn’t identify students.
That changed when she started talking to the media, according to documents obtained from UNC by The Herald-Sun.
“Based on the information provided, most importantly the certification that she and other researchers would be working solely with de-identified data, we determined that her proposed activity did not involve human subjects (as defined by federal regulations),” Nelson wrote in a Jan. 21 statement.
That means researchers wouldn’t have access to names or codes that would allow them to re-identify individual subjects.
But the Institutional Review Board demanded another look when she was on CNN talking about literacy levels among student-athletes on UNC’s football and basketball teams. While not naming names, it still tended to identify specific people.
Nelson wrote that “it was our realization that the researchers had, in fact, been in possession of named data all along” that motivated the IRB to demand another review.
“This constituted new information that contradicted her earlier statement to the IRB, and we acted accordingly,” he wrote.
Since February, UNC learning specialist Bradley Bethel on his blog – Coaching the Mind -- has posted essays critical of the methods used by Willingham’s research team and of the results she disseminated to the media.
He too worried that Willingham and others on her team might have violated research ethics by using identifiable data.
Bethel hasn’t cut UNC slack for shortcomings in the past, such as the use of no-show classes for athletes. But on Thursday he said he thinks changes that the university has made under athletic director Bubba Cunningham and Provost Jim Dean are steps in the right direction.
“I am satisfied with the university,” Bethel said. “The system and processes are not perfect, but there’s a momentum behind the reforms that they have been championing. I’m very confident that, five years from now, people will be looking at UNC as a leader in balancing academics and athletics.”
He doesn’t think the same can be said of Willingham’s findings, which included claims on CNN and HBO that 68 percent of student-athletes tested couldn’t read at a high school level. Three independent academics hired by UNC questioned Willingham’s findings and methodology. She resigned in April after a meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt.
“There’s a clear discrepancy between what she has stated publicly about the nature of her research and what it says,” Bethel said. “She told the Daily Tar Heel on Jan. 16 that her research studied how they did in school, their GPA, but the research application reveals the stated purpose was limited to estimating the incidence of ADHD and learning disabilities.”
Reading levels don’t fall under either of those, Bethel said.
He said he thinks that Willingham may have meant well at the start, but got blinded by the limelight.
“I believe that, at some point, she had good intentions,” Bethel said. “But somewhere along the way, she seems to have gotten wrapped up in the media attention and seems to have abandoned educational ethics in her quest to be the one to make a significant difference in college athletics.”
In a Feb. 16 letter to university officials, Willingham wrote that she “never intentionally misled anyone about the data I was collecting.”
“The data are objective scores earned on tests which I did not even administer,” she wrote. “The fact that scores could theoretically be traced back to the individuals who earned them does not change the nature of the score earned or the level of the measured ability.”
Willingham did not respond to requests for comment about apparent discrepancies between her research application and the work her team actually conducted, as well as the student privacy concerns.
For its part, UNC isn’t saying much.
“Your questions relate to a matter that is confidential under N.C. law, and we are unable to offer further comment,” said Tanya Moore of UNC university relations.

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