UNC responds to report condemning student-athletes’ reading levels

Jan. 09, 2014 @ 07:26 PM

UNC-Chapel Hill is fighting back after a CNN report released Tuesday stated that some former UNC student-athletes didn’t know how to read or write, and that many on the basketball and football teams couldn’t read beyond an eighth-grade level.

The data was produced by Mary Willingham, a UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling employee, providing the main evidence in a CNN investigation examining achievement gaps between student-athletes and their peers at institutions with major sports programs.

Willingham told CNN that she examined the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. According to her research, 60 percent read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8 and 10 percent read below a third-grade level. She said that this remains a problem at the university.

Between UNC Board of Governors committee meetings Thursday afternoon, UNC Provost James W. Dean Jr. stepped in front of TV cameras and reporters to say that Willingham has repeatedly refused to share her data with the university.

“We haven’t seen that data, so it’s really hard what to make of that claim,” Dean said. “We haven’t seen it. We’ve asked for that data, several times, actually, but we haven’t gotten it.”

Willingham did not reply to interview requests from The Herald-Sun Thursday.

The reading-level report comes after independent and university-led investigations into an academic scandal involving athletes and the school’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies. The investigations found problems dating back to 1997.

The review of UNC’s academic irregularities found professors not showing up to hold classes, grade rosters with forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes, according to previous reports in The Herald-Sun. The fraud case involving Julius Nyang’oro, former chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies department, could begin as early as spring in Orange County Superior Court.

Three people also are expected to plead or stand trial in Orange County Superior Court in connection with a state investigation into the UNC-Chapel Hill football program, in which the defendants, including a former UNC academic tutor, are charged with violating the North Carolina Uniform Athlete Agents Act, which prohibits giving money to college athletes.

Provost Dean said the university now has “checkers” going to classes to make sure they’re meeting in person, and the university is collecting class syllabi and has put in place a strict auditing system. He said they remain proud of UNC’s sports programs and 28 varsity teams, and that most of these students are graduating and moving on to successful careers.

“We don’t believe the claims that are being made about reading levels,” he said.

UNC-Chapel Hill released a statement about the Jan. 7 CNN story, saying university officials cannot comment on the statistical claims because they haven’t seen the hard data.

“We do not believe that claim and find it patently unfair to the many student-athletes who have worked hard in the classroom and on the court and represented our university with distinction,” according to UNC.

The university said the Office of Undergraduate Admissions examines standardized test scores and grade point averages, among many factors, when determining whether a student is accepted to the university. That office has the final decision-making authority of enrollment.

UNC men’s basketball coach Roy Williams said he agrees with the university’s statement and spoke out against the report.

"I don't believe it's true, it's totally unfair,” Williams said. “I'm really proud of the kids we've brought in here. I'm really proud of what our student-athletes have done.”

Williams said he has witnessed 10 UNC recruiting classes, and he has seen only one senior not graduate during his coaching tenure. 

“The University of North Carolina doesn't do that. The University of North Carolina doesn't stand for that,” he added. “I don't believe it's true and I'm really, really bothered by the whole thing. People have taken their chances and beaten up on us for a while, but we're going to survive this and I'm really proud of my kids.”

UNC’s Undergraduate Admissions Advisory Committee, a standing faculty committee appointed by the chancellor, provides guidance to the admissions office, according to the university. A subcommittee of this faculty committee established guidelines and procedures for the admission of student-athletes and other students with special talent.

Last August, the university convened the Student-Athlete Academic Initiative Working Group, led by Dean and Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham to develop a national model of student-athlete admission practices.

Jan Boxill, head of the UNC Faculty Council, said the university has been working for two years to address student-athlete issues.

“We’ve done so much in terms of admission, so these types of allegations and accusations don’t arise because I think our admissions policies have changed,” Boxill said.

The Faculty Council heard a presentation in November from its Athletics Committee, which helps bridge the gap between athletics department recruiting and Office of Undergraduate Admissions policies and faculty oversight.

The committee also examined six-year graduation success rates of students who received athletics aid or were recruited to UNC to play sports, which comprised 443 out of about 800 UNC student-athletes.

The women’s soccer team was at a 67-percent graduation rate, and the football team sat at 65 percent. Some players were called to play on professional teams before they finished their senior year at UNC.

“We’re trying to move to correct these things,” Boxill added about past shortfalls between UNC athletics and academics. “These things don’t get corrected overnight. They get corrected by strong policies that are the right ones.”

UNC student body president Christy Lambden said he expects the university to continue to ask for the data.

“I don’t think this adequately characterizes the athletes we have involved and the student-athletes we have at Carolina,” Lambden said. “... We don’t admit students that we don’t believe have the ability to succeed at Carolina.”

Between UNC Board of Governors committee meetings Thursday, board member Harry Smith said he thinks the report is receiving attention from the “Carolina hater crowd” revolving around athletics, and that time will allow Carolina to heal from such allegations.

If literacy was a problem for UNC athletes, Smith said, people would see the same problem popping up at all universities that compare to UNC in size and budget around the nation.

“I think what you would find is that most large (NCAA Division)-1 programs would have the same challenges,” Smith said. “I mean, they’re recruiting in the same field of athletes that Carolina’s recruiting. Carolina’s not going out recruiting specifically challenged athletes. Everybody’s recruiting (in) the same pool.

“What was very unfortunate is that Carolina has been called out specifically on this and then put in the national news,” Smith continued. “If you take a look at the success rate of universities nationwide, you put Chapel Hill up against just about anybody.”