January 25, 2014

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: Chapel Hill Researcher’s Findings on Athletes’ Literacy Bring a Backlash.

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. . . . 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.

The university looks pretty self-serving, and of course there’s the problem that one of its department chairs is under indictment for fraud for offering classes that didn’t meet. I wrote a column about this case a couple of weeks ago.