UNC-Chapel Hill, employee reach impasse over student-athlete findings

Jan. 10, 2014 @ 08:42 PM

After a national report released this week placed UNC-Chapel Hill student-athlete reading levels under the microscope, UNC officials are asking the researcher, a university employee, to provide them with the data.

Mary Willingham, a UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling employee, is saying that the university already has the data, and can use it to come to its own conclusions.

The CNN report published Tuesday stated that some former UNC athletes, particularly on the basketball and football teams, didn’t know how to read or write, or couldn’t read beyond an eighth-grade level.

In an email to The Herald-Sun, Willingham said Friday that UNC’s athletics department should have all the data the university needs and that it belongs to them.

“They paid for it,” Willingham said. “My research is what is referred to as a ‘secondary data analysis.’ The data already exists.”

She said she used SAT and ACT scores, along with reading scores from the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA), to determine the reading levels of UNC student-athletes.

“They can just as easily 'run the numbers' if they want to see the truth,” Willingham said.

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, and between 8 and 10 percent read below a third-grade level. She said this remains a problem at UNC.

After a UNC Board of Governors meeting at the Spangler Center in Chapel Hill Friday, UNC system President Thomas Ross said the admissions departments at their 17 campuses are strong, and these campuses provide academic support to student-athletes to ensure their success.

“What we know is only what has been reported, which was taken from an individual, and so it’s our understanding that the campus is taking a look at this to see where that information came from, whether or not that’s accurate information, and so I don’t know that we can comment anything beyond that except to say that they’re looking at the facts,” Ross said.

This latest incident of UNC-Chapel Hill athletics in the media spotlight comes after an academic scandal investigation that found no-show classes, grade rosters with forged signatures and unauthorized grade changes dating back to 1997. Three people also are expected to plead or stand trial this year for charges of giving money to college athletes, a violation of the North Carolina Uniform Athlete Agents Act.

“It’s definitely damaged the university in some ways, but I don’t think it’s permanent damage because there’s so much strong work that goes on at the university,” Ross said of UNC-Chapel Hill’s reputation.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans said university athletics across the system must be policed and transparent, and in the coming months, the board will look at the finances of athletics programs in more detail.

“Many of these student-athletes excel, some struggle, and we want to be open and honest about that fact,” Hans said.

Joy Renner, chairwoman of the Faculty Athletics Committee at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she has seen those reading level numbers before. Willingham shared them with Renner in an email last semester.

The athletics committee meets Tuesdays and discusses the relationship between athletics and academics, and Willingham attended a committee meeting last December, when she shared some of her reading level statistics, Renner said.

One of the committee members asked Willingham if she could share the data and release it to the committee for further evaluation, Renner said, and Willingham said she had to check if she could release the data due to privacy concerns of the students involved.

“When it came out on CNN, I said, OK, it must be ready to be released,” Renner said.

She added that she invited Willingham to the committee’s upcoming Tuesday meeting to share her research findings, but Renner said Willingham declined the offer.

“She said, well, the university already has it,” Renner said. “What we’re looking for is the data set she used, the numbers that she got and the method she used to get those numbers. ... We want to see her methodology.”

Renner added that this year’s goal among committee members is to gather data, discuss how to better align the athletics department with academics, and continue the campus conversation to strengthen the athletics-academics partnership.

“Some people may think we’re slow in what we’re doing, and I choose to say what we’re doing is deliberate,” she said.

On Thursday and Friday, the UNC system Board of Governors were presented with a UNC intercollegiate athletics report, which shared the academic profile of freshmen student-athletes, majors of student-athletes, academic success indicators, campuses that received awards or sanctions, and information regarding nonacademic violations of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) bylaws.

For freshmen athletes recruited in 2012-13 at UNC-Chapel Hill, those in men’s football entered the university with an average 3.43 GPA, 1060 SAT score and 22 ACT. Men’s basketball scores were lower, with an average 2.96 GPA and 21 ACT (SAT not listed).

According to the educational programming company College Board, the average SAT score for the national class of 2013 was 1010 for combined critical reading and math. The average ACT national composite score in 2013, as calculated by the assessment organization ACT, was 20.9.

The UNC report also places UNC-Chapel Hill against a list of peer institutions, ranking them by graduation success rate. UNC-Chapel Hill, with its 24 sports programs, had an 86-percent NCAA graduation success rate. The only other North Carolina university on that list was Duke, which was ranked No. 1 with a 98-percent NCAA graduation success rate.