Late last year, UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham alleged that many Carolina athletes weren’t academically prepared for college-level work. That research has been stopped by the administration of UNC-Chapel Hill.
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Willingham analyzed data for 183 “at risk” athletes admitted to UNC-Chapel Hill between 2004 and 2012. Of the athletes she studied, 85 percent came from the revenue sports of football and basketball. She found that 60 percent had reading scores that equated to fourth- through eighth-grade levels. The reading skills of an additional 8 percent to 10 percent were below the third-grade level.
That research captured the national spotlight when Willingham shared it with CNN. But Willingham’s work soon came under fire—first from basketball coach Roy Williams, then in an official statement from the University.
“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,” the statement said.
UNC-Chapel Hill announced in late January that its institutional review board had suspended Willingham’s work, because she had allegedly released data that could be used to identify research subjects. Willingham’s co-investigator on the research project, Richard Southall, questioned whether the data violation occurred by forwarding it to the provost—which Willingham did not want to do.
Provost Jim Dean said in a statement the violation occurred before Willingham released the data to him.
“Ms. Willingham had said a number of times that she had identified data, and in fact had shared some pieces of it…in connection with earlier investigations,” Dean said. “The [review board] had decided to look into her case before she finally turned the data set over to me.”
Some claim that the board’s action is simply a tactic to silence research that the university doesn’t like. Willingham played an important role in exposing a major academic fraud scandal involving the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. That scandal has already cost Carolina $1.5 million and tarnished its reputation for academic excellence. She was also named a witness by the plaintiffs in the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA.
Director of the Office of Human Research Ethics Daniel K. Nelson denied the accusation that the board is trying to silence research. “There should also be no implication that my office was pressured to take this action. The IRB at UNC operates with a very high degree of independence and authority, as it was intended. As example, neither I nor my staff have ever heard from or communicated with Provost Dean on this (or any other) matter,” Nelson said in a statement.
The Raleigh News & Observer has requested the underlying data, both from Willingham and from the university.
Willingham’s research has not been reinstated.