Chapel Hill Researcher’s Findings on Athletes’ Literacy Bring a Backlash

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After Mary C. Willingham, a learning specialist at the U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, released data showing that about 10 percent of the university’s football and basketball players whom she studied couldn’t read, the university suspended her work. Other scholars at Chapel Hill say that response is likely to have a “chilling effect” on any scholarly work that could make the university look bad.
January 24, 2014

Mary C. Willingham, the North Carolina learning specialist who has sparked controversy with her data about the poor reading skills of college athletes, says her latest work illuminates issues that she has been concerned about her whole life.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she saw socioeconomic inequities play out right in front of her. Then, after working for years as a reading specialist in the athletics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she says, she began to recognize those same disparities affecting players there.

Expecting all athletes to handle the high caliber of academic work required at Chapel Hill is about as realistic as expecting her to suit up for a Division I football game, says Ms. Willingham, an instructor in the university's College of Arts and Sciences. “It would be like dropping me off on the football field, giving me a jersey, and telling me to just figure it out.”

Ms. Willingham, who is 52, has been talking about what she sees as the university's poor track record in educating some UNC players since 2010, when the largest academic-­fraud scandal in the university’s history broke open.

Now the whistle­-blower, who filed a grievance against the university last year after it demoted her for those remarks, she says, is in the middle of a new firestorm. This time it is for data she released that show that about 10 percent of the university’s football and basketball players whom she studied can’t read.

University administrators have harshly criticized her research methods and disagreed with her findings. They have also suspended her work, saying she ran afoul of federal rules requiring that the identities of subjects remain anonymous to researchers. To continue her research, officials have said, she must receive approval from the university's institutional review board.

CNN used Ms. Willingham's data in an extensive report this month about low levels of academic achievement among college athletes. Of the 183 athletes Ms. Willingham studied at Chapel Hill from 2004 to 2012 who were admitted under special academic standards, 60 percent read between fourth­- and eighth­-grade levels. An additional 8 percent to 10 percent were functionally illiterate, she found.

At a faculty meeting this month, James W. Dean Jr., the provost, called the research "a travesty," according to news reports. He said four university employees had spent 200 hours dissecting Ms. Willingham’s data and found that she had gotten the numbers on athletes’ reading levels all wrong.

In short, Ms. Willingham inappropriately used a simple vocabulary test to assess reading ability and then mistakenly conflated the scores on that test with specific reading grade levels, Mr. Dean said, according to his PowerPoint presentation at the faculty meeting. Those mistakes, he told professors, rendered her findings “nearly meaningless” and were "grossly unfair" to the reputation of the university's athletes.

Ms. Willingham says the university’s critiques are unfounded. “I have been working as a reading specialist for 14 years,” she says, “I would never make the mistakes they said I made.”

'Chilling Effect'

Scholars at Chapel Hill say the way the university has responded to Ms. Willingham’s research has implications beyond her work. By halting it because of concerns over the anonymity of her subjects, and at the same time criticizing her findings, the university appears to be using the IRB as a tool to thwart her inquiry, say some faculty members.

“This looks vindictive,” says Frank R. Baumgartner, a distinguished professor of political science at Chapel Hill. “It puts the university in a defensive posture, where they could instead be taking the initiative and saying, Let’s have a national conversation to find the right balance between athletics and academics.”

Instead, says Mr. Baumgartner, the university’s attack on Ms. Willingham’s research has a “chilling effect” on any scholarly work that could make the university look bad.

Daniel K. Nelson, director of the university’s office of human-­research ethics, who oversees the institutional review boards, issued a statement saying he had not been pressured by university administrators into requesting that Ms. Willingham seek IRB approval.

He said it had simply become clear with the release of her research results that identifying details were in fact maintained in her data set. (Ms. Willingham has never publicly identified her research subjects.)

But Ms. Willingham says that nothing has changed since she sought approval from the review board before her research began, and that review­board officials told her she didn’t need it. Since she screened her student subjects over time, she says, she has had to keep track of their identities—something she says the IRB knew all along.

‘I'm Stubborn’

The groundwork for Ms. Willingham’s activism on the education of athletes was laid when she was a teenager attending public high school in Chicago. “I have this educational and inequality alertness,” she says. “My parents were active in the community to make sure white flight didn’t happen” when the first black family moved in across the street.

She refined her opinions as a remedial­-reading teacher at Chapel Hill High School in the early 2000s, where she saw students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds whom she believes got fewer opportunities than their wealthier counterparts did. “People who can afford it give their kids tutors, enrichment, and after­-school SAT prep,” she says. “I saw the gap between students.”

The same kinds of disadvantages were evident, she says, for some of the athletes with whom she began working in 2003 as a learning specialist in the university’s athletics department. She worked closely, she says, with most of the 183 students in her study and found that many of them were smart but lacked basic reading and writing skills.

“We could meet them where they are at academically and get them in shape so they could really get a college degree,” she says. Instead, she says, the university simply passes them through by guiding them to the easiest majors and classes. “That’s what’s been happening their whole lives.”

Those athletes, she says, don’t want to go back to their communities after earning a University of North Carolina degree and power­-wash houses, but for some that’s exactly what happens.

With a husband whose income is high enough to support her family, Ms. Willingham says she is perhaps in a good position to challenge the system.

“I’m stubborn,” she says. “I don’t like it when people tell me I can’t do something.”

Gaining approval from the institutional review board to continue her work could be difficult, she acknowledges, because she must know the identity of her subjects to follow them over time.

But she won’t back down, she says, despite the death threats she says she’s received by e­mail since the CNN report, and despite what she calls the “character smear” by the provost at this month’s faculty meeting. Ms. Willingham is writing a book with Jay Smith, a historian at Chapel Hill, on the campus’s academic­-fraud scandal and what it means for the education of athletes.

Mr. Smith praises Ms. Willingham and her research, calling her "committed and compassionate in her dealings with students.” He likens the university’s critique of her work to a “search­-and-­destroy attempt to discredit her.”

Ms. Willingham says her motivations are simple. “Someone,” she says, “has to fix this mess.”