Messages show struggle over study, underlying data
Electronic mail messages released by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill show sometimes contentious exchanges between researcher Mary Willingham and the college.
In a message to Provost Jim Dean, dated July 18, 2013, Willingham described her findings – using academic data mainly from students in the “revenue sports” of football and basketball:
“These numbers speak to the presence at UNC of a significant population of athletes unprepared for the rigors of University classrooms.”
She noted that “the bogus system of eligibility – UNC’s paper class system” no longer existed to keep players on their teams.
“Unless we offer intensive reading instruction and a course of curriculum for our profit sport athletes, academic fraud will continue,” Willingham wrote.
According to Dean, in an email from Jan. 12, 2014, he had an assistant meet with Willingham to review her underlying data.
“She even brought a flash drive with her so it would be easy for you to copy the data,” Dean wrote. “You refused, stating you were restricted from sharing the data by Institutional Review Board rules.”
In December 2013, she presented her opinions to the Faculty Athletics Committee. The FAC asked for her data. Again, Dean said, she refused because of IRB restrictions.
But, Dean told her, the IRB “has no policy that restricts your ability to share your raw data with the Provost.”
“As someone who has worked in an academic institution for many years, I know you understand that a hallmark of academic research is peer review and that sharing research data and methodology is key to that review,” Dean wrote. “Every researcher on this campus knows that conclusions have no value unless fully explained and supported by the raw data and appropriate, disciplined analysis. That is why researchers are always ready to share their raw data and to explain their methodologies so that others within the academy can test and debate their conclusions.”
After meeting with Willingham on Jan. 13, Dean expressed disappointment in a spreadsheet that she had sent in response to his request for data.
“It is not at all a sign of good faith on your part,” he wrote. “I want you to send me the actual spreadsheet that you used to make your claims. It should include names and sports, as you have said that you have this information.”
Nothing in what she sent, Dean wrote, would allow her to make claims about grade-level reading.
Willingham replied: “The last spreadsheet did have the information necessary to make the claims. Attached is a spreadsheet with identifiable data per your request. I have also attached the abstract with some coding information.”
She then asked that any further emails be sent to her attorney.
After taking her findings to national media outlets, Willingham found herself the target of numerous death threats and hostile emails, Facebook and Twitter posts.
She shared those materials with Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications and public affairs for UNC. She blamed them on the university’s “character attack” against her.
In his response, Curran outlined steps that were taken to raise awareness with campus police and the publisher of Inside Carolina, which saw many angry posts about Willingham.
He acknowledged that she “might feel compelled to contact media” about her concerns, “and that is certainly your prerogative.”
“But, I want to reassure you that I have taken these very seriously and have moved as expeditiously as possible,” Curran wrote.
Willingham found some support from at least one UNC graduate. Colin Hodges, a journalism school graduate from the Class of 2013, said he would stand behind her even if the university wouldn’t.
He said he witnessed firsthand a literacy problem among football and basketball players.
“There was certainly a literacy gap between student athletes and the rest of the undergrad population,” Hodges wrote in a January email.
He recounted a geology class where members of the freshmen basketball team would frequently “whisper among themselves how ‘hard’ or ‘confusing’ the simplest reading assignments were,” he wrote. They’d also rejoice upon receiving Cs or Ds, “happy to have just slipped by.”
Among Willingham’s critics, apparently, was UNC basketball player Sasha Seymore.
In a February email responding to Seymore, Willingham defended her work.
“My research is not flawed,” she wrote. “The evidence comes from the raw scores, and only the Psychologist who did the actual screening has those scores. Those scores prove that my analysis is indeed correct.”
She concluded: “This will now have to be solved in a court of law which will involve more bad publicity.”
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