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UNC Comes Out Swinging at Willingham

After two weeks of having Mary Willingham dictate the narrative, UNC finally draws blood. But it will likely do little to turn the local and national landslide the university has faced in the wake of her claims.

Streeter Lecka

At the end of the week, UNC launched a three-pronged response to the assertions of Mary Willingham that was so lucid and well-executed it made you question if it was UNC we were actually talking about.

On Thursday, Carolina Chancellor Carol Folt released a statement regarding the academic credentials of admitted student athletes, framed using the same standardized test score threshold that CNN used in their reporting featuring Willingham. The key move here is that CNN used Willingham's data for their picture of UNC while using ACT/SAT data for most other schools because that's what other schools released to them. Plus, as Brian noted in his story, UNC was careful to call out CNN and not Willingham herself.

That was likely because UNC dropped the hammer on Willingham herself on Friday. In a meeting of the UNC Faculty Council, Folt and Provost Jim Dean outlined the university's refutation of Willingham's research and methodology. Among the items shared with the faculty were:

Since last August, Willingham had shared general information with statistics about enrollment patterns in a specific course and some additional information that she said reflected her own personal analysis about academic data and student-athletes.

Until January 13th, Willingham had not provided University officials with more detailed information about her dataset. A representative of the Provost’s Office and the chair of the Faculty Athletics Committee had previously unsuccessfully requested that data in the context of academic reform efforts underway on campus. Contrary to Willingham’s public statements, no full datasets had been delivered previously to the University.

The Office of University Counsel also received information in 2010, but it was not the data. In fact, a handwritten note from Willingham accompanying the flash drive she provided stated she could not include the dataset until it was de-identified…

The test that Willingham used as the underpinning of her analysis and findings was the Reading Vocabulary subtest of the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA). The actual test instrument was one page with 25 questions, and typically requires 10 minutes to complete…

Results of the SATA Reading Vocabulary Subtest can be expressed as raw scores, standard scores, percentiles, or grade equivalents. The dataset Willingham provided to the University included only standard scores, but the findings she has reported publicly misrepresent these standard scores as grade equivalents. This misrepresentation leads to serious errors in the findings…

The University’s initial evaluation has revealed a basic mistake in Willingham’s apparent methodology that led her to make serious accusations about the literacy levels of UNC-Chapel Hill student-athletes…

The University will have Willingham’s raw dataset and apparent methodology independently evaluated and reported back to the University as soon as that process has been completed.

This is a significant shot across Willingham's bow. From the time of the initial CNN article, there has been a question about her data and methodology. She initially refused to provide her dataset to UNC but "would show them where to find it." Once she did finally provide it, however, UNC set out to tear it apart, and in presenting the findings to the Faculty Council made it about academics rather than just PR.

The third prong in UNC's move against Willingham was for the University's Institutional Review Board to withdraw their approval for her research. Any research involving human subjects must be reviewed and approved by the IRB, including the handling of data. UNC's IRB pulled their approval over the release of data that could identify individual student-athletes. The irony of this is that she originally refused to share the data with UNC because of those student privacy concerns, but it appears she had shared the data somewhere outside of the university. In addition, she had recently revealed academic information about members of this season's football team. That likely gave the IRB the opening they needed to shut her down. The practical effect of this is that she is not supposed to conduct further research or continue her current study without IRB approval. In other words, the data generated by this study is off limits as well.

UNC's actions seemed to rattle Willingham and even give some of her supporters pause. The original CNN piece, and all the subsequent re-tellings of this story in other media outlets, cited Willingham's use of a percentile on the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults corresponding to a grade equivalent for literacy. After Dean and Folt showed how that was an incorrect use of the data, Willingham backtracked and said her analysis "was a combination of the SATA reading and writing (tests) and the SAT and ACT scores", but that is clearly not what CNN and other media outlets reported, nor is it reflected in the email to Provost Dean. Also, former UNC and current South Carolina professor Richard Southall, who was listed as a "co-researcher" and immediately came to her defense at the outset, said she should have waited before sharing her findings and should not have gone to CNN (interesting choice of words, since it implies Willingham went to CNN rather than CNN seeking her out).

While this is an effective counter-move, this may ultimately be a case of UNC winning this particular battle but continuing to lose the war. Discrediting Willingham involves a lot of research minutiae that is very important in the academic world but doesn't always sit well in the sound-bite driven world. Deep analysis of her data and methodology may cause some people to tune out. Plus, as T.H. described earlier this week, UNC has been losing the PR war badly since the story first broke.

More important, Willingham occupies the most exalted place in investigative journalism, the realm of "whistleblower". No criticism or refutation of whistleblowers can occur, even if the whistleblower is found to be completely out in left field, because that is just the big, bad entity seeking retribution for being exposed. Her primary media crusaders, Dan Kane of the News and Observer and Sara Ganim of CNN, have already come to her defense, and Willingham herself is playing the whistleblower victim card, expressing fear of losing her job. And even if Willingham's data is exposed as being faulty, she will still be hailed as exposing a larger problem, even if her claims were hyperbolic (a position previewed in this N&O editorial).

The main problem for UNC is that they have been so far behind the curve in allowing Willingham and the media to frame the issue and set the debate for nearly two weeks that the university will likely never be able to get back out in front of it. Or, to use a sports analogy, UNC's response was the equivalent of an impressive touchdown drive but is still down 28-7. If UNC had been able to put together such a strong effort in the first 24-48 hours of this all coming out, they may have been able to slow it down some of the fallout. And as effective as UNC's response was, it came out on the Friday afternoon prior to a holiday weekend, which is pretty much guaranteed to bury any PR traction.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that there is merit to the discussion Willingham is purportedly trying to foster. The academic readiness for college of student-athletes, and high school graduates in general, is certainly worthy of attention and debate. But the truth is often damning enough; there is no need to misreport or exaggerate to make the point.