clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

UNC Report Still Misses Key Points

Some fair criticisms of Mary Willingham, but an incomplete picture

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Larry Fedora of the North Carolina Tar Heels celebrates with the trophy after defeating the Cincinnati Bearcats 39-17 at Bank of America Stadium on December 28, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Larry Fedora of the North Carolina Tar Heels celebrates with the trophy after defeating the Cincinnati Bearcats 39-17 at Bank of America Stadium on December 28, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Streeter Lecka

UNC hired outside help to look at Mary Willingham's research which is at the heart of her claims that up to 60 % of UNC athletes read at a sub-high school level and another 8-10% are functionally illiterate.

If you shop Amazon, please start here and help DBR
Available now!

The outside experts found problems with her research, but Willingham objected, saying that  the analysts didn't look at the individual tests she gave to athletes and weren't given other information that she used.

In a statement she said that "[t]he fact that they engaged in this exercise without ever seeking input from me or my research partner, and without the raw scores, or an examination of the full battery of tests (on a majority of these same athletes) ... speaks volumes about the true motivations behind today’s press release."

Kind of lost in all of this is that even the experts found that "less than seven percent of UNC student-athletes possessed a reading level between fourth and eighth grade."

Well break out the hats and hooters.

Look, a lot of this is inside baseball and beyond most of us. There are some important points made by the critics, among them that Willingham reported 183 subjects but the researchers found only 176.

There's also the question of bias. The researchers found that the SATA - the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults which Willingham partly relied on - was "old, biased against minorities and particularly ineffective in determining reading levels below the 10th grade," according to the N&O.

But all of that aside (read the article for a more in-depth look), the experts said that there simply wasn't enough information to really draw conclusions about reading levels.

Well, other than determining that less than seven percent read at a fourth to eighth grade level apparently.

And one of the experts, unidentified in the article, conceded that between the SATA, SAT and/or ACT scores and personal interactions, it would be possible to determine an athlete's reading level.

As Willingham said, her full research, warts and all, was not provided to the investigators. UNC provost James W. Dean argued that it wasn't necessary because Willingham's findings were based on the data.

It's also worth remembering that when the N&O asked for the test results, with names redacted, the university refused, citing privacy concerns.

So one more report has come and gone with questions still lingering and the appearance that UNC is still, at this late date, trying to make this all go away, that discrediting Willingham is more important than an honest discussion of what her experiences are.

Is her research flawed? We'll have to take the expert's word on that. Does it mean her claims are invalid?

Not necessarily.

When you sit down with people and read their writing and assess their comprehension of written materials, you can absolutely form a reasonable opinion of both the individuals ability. Do it enough times you can reasonably understand the school's commitment to academics.

There is obviously a big difference between the 60% Willingham cites and the "less than seven percent" the experts point to. But it's reasonable to assume that the vast majority of the seven percent are concentrated in three sports: men's and women's basketball and football.

American colleges and universities are generally speaking at the forefront when it comes to finding and fighting racism. The terrible irony, or hypocrisy, if you prefer, is this: in order to compete at a high level athletically, schools have to recruit players who can't compete so well academically.

Thus you see Danny Manning reportedly negotiate to lower admission requirements for basketball players before he took the Wake job.

What's clear from this report is that UNC is no closer to resolving the tension between academic malfeasance and what was once called the UNC way than it has been for the last several years. Fixing this requires a brutal honesty that the university lacks.

The continued attempts to finesse it, to discredit critics, to paper over academic fraud, all of this is just cancerous.  It's been mishandled from beginning to end, and a price will be paid for years to come.