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UNC Facing a Very Public Argument with Mary Willingham

The former learning specialist is everywhere, from CNN to the Colbert Report, and none of it bodes well for UNC.

Ellen Ozier-USA TODAY Sports

Public relations is trickier than a lot of people think. Sensible comments inartfully worded, a delayed response, or a small fact that escapes your attention can quickly snowball into a full-blown fiasco, and you can find yourself in a daze wondering exactly how everything went so horribly wrong.

I mention this because the University of North Carolina is now arguing with one of their own employees through various media outlets over, among other things, whether a former basketball player was illiterate. And there's no way the school is going to come away looking anything but horrible because of it.

This particular branch of UNC's ongoing media disaster began with the CNN article we've been discussing the last few days. It opens with a few anecdotes from Mary Willingham, former learning specialist and tutor to the athletic department, and primary source for the piece. There was a basketball player that couldn't read or write, another athlete who couldn't sound out multisyllabic words, and a third who aspired to read about himself in the news. And then there was the following, from some work she did towards a graduate degree at UNC [phrasing by CNN]:

From Mary Willingham's research, based on Scholastic Aptitude Test for Adults:
  • Of 183 athletes in revenue-generating sports admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012:
  • About 60% were reading between the fourth and eighth grade reading levels.
  • Between 8% and 10% were reading below a third grade level.

Those are some depressing statistics, although you wouldn't be alone in wondering about how you get a count of 183 student-athletes over nine years of admission. Football alone should admit roughly 225 in that time period, though they were short a few scholarships towards the end.

The UNC administration's response was measured; others less so. The university told CNN they were unaware of Wilingham's research, and said research wasn't part of her job. The latter at least was certainly true — Willingham works in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, and as an advisor in the Graduation Division. But CNN informed them that "had approval to conduct the research and shared her findings with university officials."

Then things got worse. UNC issued a stronger statement after the CNN piece was aired, saying they do not believe the illiterate basketball player anecdote, and that they could not "comment on the other statistical claims mentioned in the story because they have not seen that data. University officials have asked for that data, but those requests have not been met." And Roy Williams weighed in, which would send most journalists back to Willingham for a response.

I think anyone challenged in such a manner would respond, and Willingham has, both in a second CNN piece and two articles in the News and Observer. All three articles made mention of two e-mails from Willingham, one to Executive Vice Provost James W. Dean Jr., and one to Lissa Broome, a law professor who is the faculty representative to the NCAA. The N&O, however published the e-mails. The relevant portions — it's the same in both e-mails — is this:

I have reviewed academic data for 183 athletes admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012 (all started in English 100). Although several teams are represented in this group, the great majority of the students (85%) come from the revenue sports - mens football and basketball. These numbers speak to the presence at UNC of a significant population of athletes unprepared for the rigors of University classrooms. 60% (110) of these students have reading scores below the 50% range --constitutes 4th- 8th grade reading levels - 8-10% are non-readers (39% incidence of LD and or ADHD). If they had applied to any NC Community College, they would have had to, prior to their full acceptance and starting a course of study, complete one to three semesters of developmental reading coursework. 20- 25% of these students would have to complete a general competency course prior to the three semesters of reading. Of the 183 students, 45 (about 24%) had UNC GPA's under 2.0, thus putting them at risk of academic disqualification. Ninety-four of the 183 students, over half, had GPA's under 2.3. Keep in mind that the bogus system of eligibility - UNC's paper class system - was assisting these players to stay on the court/field. That system no longer exists.

First of all, note the difference between what Willingham wrote and CNN published (The N&O, it must be noted, got this correctly). Her sample of 183 students are those that took English 100 their freshman year. This is UNC's remedial English course, required for incoming student who scored less than 460 on the writing portion of the SAT, below 19 on the ACT, or a 1 or 2 on the AP Language exam. UNC, per Willingham, admits 160 athletes a year, so this is 13% of UNC's of the athletic department's charges. Nor is it shocking that the students in remedial English are more likely to have low reading scores,and low GPAs. The purpose of English 100 is to be a bridge for students to 105, the composition general education requirement. If it cannot do that for its students, or if athletes are much further behind than the other students in the same class (48 of the 61 students in ENGL 100 one semester were athletes, also per Willingham) than the course or the admissions policy should be reexamined. But it alone isn't indicative of a broken system.

It's worth noting that the N&O has done a better job of accurately representing the sample Willingham studied. CNN continues to treat her numbers as representative of the entire athletic department. They have, however, removed links to her thesis, which they implied contained the data supporting her conclusions. (Written in 2009, it self-evidently does not.)

The other important thing, on both CNN and the N&O elide, is that this isn't data. It's a series of conclusions, based on data. Willingham refuses to turn the raw data over to UNC, citing privacy regulations, but says the university should be able to generate the data themselves.This, in turn, has resulted in most of the petty back-and-forth in the media, and it's completely inexplicable. First of all, Willingham should be able to easily anonymize the data — I'm rather shocked it wasn't provided to her that way in the first place. But UNC should just as easily be able to collect the data on their own, and if it doesn't match Willingham's findings they should say so. The university looks incompetent at best by not being able to analyze their own data, and mendacious at worse to folks who didn't grasp the difference between data and conclusions.

And then there's the other black mark against the UNC community — the multiple death threats Willingham has received in the last week, which lead the CNN article and hastened its spread. I wish I could say I was surprised, but the internet brings out the sociopath in some people, especially when dealing with women. I hope those responsible are prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and if I was in charge of UNC they would be banned from setting foot on campus.

Willingham's allegations have captured the zeitgeist for the moment, which is frustrating to folks like us who have been stewing in this for two years now. She's filed a declaration in the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit this supporting players being paid; in it she drops new UNC data, saying that on this year's football team, seventeen "starters and other regular players had a combined 2.3 GPA (the UNC average is 3.2) and 29 F's, 53 D's and 10 semesters of academic probation." The not-at-all randomized sample almost surely indicates she's highlighting the struggling students; a distinction I guarantee will be lost the next time you read that statistic. She'll also be on the Colbert Report Thursday, in a segment rather than the interview in the third part of the show.

And here is where UNC finds itself. Provost Jim Dean seems to genuinely want to understand the data. But we need to abandon the thought that this is ground zero for a change in athletics, or that every university does it. Previous scandals at Georgia and Michigan have resulted in no greater call for reform; the NCAA will not seriously interfere with education side of a university for fear of upsetting the entire apple cart. The university will bear a black mark for the foreseeable future; at this point all I'm curious about is exactly what the effect is. Give me context, give me control groups.

Give me data.

UPDATE: According to a DTH editor, the Provost and Willingham met for 90 minutes yesterday, where she gave him two data sets, which are mostly vocabulary tests.