It is hard to know what to make of the ongoing scandal that has enveloped the University of North Carolina. The university has already made a name for itself by hosting "phantom courses" for athletes. Now research conducted by a member of the academic support staff for athletics is the subject of controversy. It sure does appear that UNC has made some major errors on this issue.
The latest problems for UNC started with a CNN interview of Mary Willingham, a "learning specialist" who works at UNC with the academic support group which works with athlete. Willingham released some information in that interview:
As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.A bit more detail can be found in Willingham's declaration provided against the NCAA in the ongoing O'Bannon case (here in PDF):
"So what are the classes they are going to take to get a degree here? You cannot come here with a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade education and get a degree here," she told CNN.
I have also reviewed data that is consistent with my experience. During the last decade at UNC, where I have obtained permission from the institutional review board to collect data for research purposes, the majority of our football and basketball players have entered the institution woefully underprepared for the classroom. At UNC, we routinely tested for learning disabilities any athlete who attended a 2nd summer school session before the first year. Of the 182 athletes screened between 2005 and 2012, a great majority (85%) come from the profit sports, although several teams are represented in the group. About 60% (110) of these athletes had reading scores below the 50% range—constituting 4th-8th grade reading levels. More than a dozen, 8-10%, were functionally illiterate, and 39% were found to be learning disabled and/or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.Willingham says more generally:
The college football and basketball players that I worked with sometimes earned a degree, but they did not get an education. They simply did not have equal access to a real education because the academic experience for athletes is separate and unequal.The response of the university to the CNN report -- which apparently is not the first time that officials learned of her research -- is remarkable. The University's IRB rescinded approval for her work. The UNC Provost said, "Using this dataset to say our students can’t read is a travesty." The response has been to attack Willingham. Frank Baumgartner, a political scientist said of the university's reaction, "“What I see unfortunately so far is a strategy of denial.”
The News & Observer, a local paper, struck exactly the right tone in an editorial:
At a time that demands that forthright leadership get to the bottom of the scandal involving athletes and no-show classes, UNC’s leadership is getting it all wrong. Instead of listening to whistle-blower Mary Willingham, the university has tried to discredit her, challenging the accuracy of her research into some athletes’ low literacy levels and suspending her research as a possible threat to student privacy.This issue still has lots of room to run, but it does seem clear that UNC has made some major missteps.
Provost Jim Dean said Willingham did not have permission from the UNC research review board to use data that might identify students. He said Willingham’s research was flawed and her conclusions “virtually meaningless.” Chancellor Carol Folt broke her silence on the scandal by saying the data compiled by Willingham did not match what university officials see in athletes’ records.
Men’s basketball coach Roy Williams challenged Willingham’s claim that one of his previous players was illiterate. “I don’t think it’s true, and I’m really, really bothered by the whole thing,” he said.
Willingham, a learning specialist in the UNC athlete tutoring program from 2003 to 2010, offered to show the coach proof of her claim, but Williams said speaking with her wasn’t his role.
Willingham, who now works at the UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, first disclosed her concerns about academically struggling athletes and bogus classes to The News & Observer in August of 2011 and went public in a Nov. 17, 2012 N&O story. She further stirred the scandal when she discussed athletes poor reading skills in a recent CNN report. Her claims are hardly new, so why is UNC-CH’s leadership responding with shock, denial and disbelief?