Chancellor explains reading research controversy at UNC faculty meeting

Posted January 17, 2014

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt addressed an assembled faculty council.

— Carol Folt, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, met with her faculty leadership Friday to discuss the recent media reports that have been, in the words of Provost Jim Dean, "a source of pain for the university."

Folt, Dean and others have found themselves on the defensive after a former student-athlete adviser went public with research she says shows Tar Heel student athletes struggle with basic reading skills. UNC officials have called the data misleading and published research of their own showing that most of the athletes met academic standards.

Mary Willingham works in the UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling. From 2003 to 2010, she helped athletes in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. During the course of her work, both as a UNC graduate student and employee, Willingham researched how university admission standards are applied to athletes in the high-profile, revenue-driving sports of men's football and basketball and found that 60 percent of the 183 athletes she studied read at a level more common in elementary school and up to 10 percent had the reading skills of a third grader.

Willingham, saying she was frustrated waiting for the university to act, took her data to CNN, which reported on it last week.

Folt denied Friday that UNC dragged its feet on the data and questioned Willingham's conclusions, claiming that an internal review, using the same formula applied by CNN, shows 90 percent of athletes in revenue sports are "college literate."

"We can't allow things to be said that aren't true," she said. "We did need to look at these data."

On Thursday, the same day the university released the results of its review, officials also revoked Willingham's research privileges. Folt told the faculty council that move was one of policy rather than retribution.

"This process would have to be followed with any researcher's data," she said.

The university has claimed Willingham's suspension stemmed from concerns that it contained and could reveal identifying information about individual students.  

Dean made the case that Willingham's research was flawed. "Using this data to determine literacy is a travesty," he told the faculty council. "Claims made based on this dataset are virtually meaningless and grossly unfair to our students."

In his presentation to the faculty, Dean pointed out that Willingham used a tests commonly used for vocabulary to extrapolate reading skills and to coorelate them with a grade level.

Student body President Christy Lambden also went public on the issue Friday. In an open letter, he wrote, "CNN did not do their due diligence and failed to request any data from Carolina. By not portraying the whole picture, CNN misrepresented the entire student-athlete population enrolled at Carolina from 2004 to the present day."

"The Carolina admissions department only admits students that it believes have the ability to succeed at the university," Lambden wrote.


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  • j9us Jan 23, 2014

    Obfuscation is a beautiful thing.

  • liskm Jan 23, 2014

    While at it with reading test, toss in a few speed limit signs (wink)!

  • smtsm Jan 20, 2014

    Why not just bring all the student athletes into an enclosed area and give them all a 10th grade reading test?

  • unc70 Jan 17, 2014

    BTW Willingham has her masters from UNC-G, not UNC-CH. I have yet to find what department awarded it. Her advisor is a brilliant scholar of ancient history (Greek, Roman, …), so maybe it is in history. It is a relatively short, widely spaced document that seems little more than a brief history of college athletics and the issues faced all around. Like and executive summary from the Knight Commission.

    I also find it strange that Willingham proposes paying the lied to athletes.

    Almost no one is discussing how frail the current funding model for sports is -- so dependent on ESPN and CBS. Could collapse quickly. And no mention of college sports begging

  • unc70 Jan 17, 2014

    I used to think it was just typical Kane misquoting Willingham, but I now suspect she confused CNN since Kane finally got some items correct. UNC requires the remedial reading course in SAT verbal is under 460. 500 is the median, 400 down one SD. Assume math 400-500, gets 800-900. UNC has about 50 a year total below 1000. High rates ADHD and dyslexia for athletes, dyslexia likely an advantage. Harder to focus, but much better and faster peripheral vision. Her job was do remediate what should have been done Pre-K.

    No surprise students with low verbal scores might have learning disabilities subject to ADA. She clearly states that UNC is providing the special help they require, but then claims the SAs were lied to. No excuses for the AFAM mess, but this is terribly misleading. Most of the special admits are for out-of-state where scores are high as Yale. Think W means well, but I think she is missing a lot. Was also part of the problem. Enabler.

  • 4tarheels Jan 17, 2014

    It's a witch hunt.

  • matrix Jan 17, 2014

    Anyone without blinders on knows this stinks to high heaven. IT HAPPENED. ADMIT IT. Cheating was going on at UNC.

    Having said that, this goes on at most big sports universities. Football players friends at my big sports university said that the exams always "showed up" in the football dorm before the test date. Great athletes get ushered through high schools too. It is UNC's turn now. If the microscope gets focused on any big sports school, the dirt will be found. Schools just pray that nothing ever brings the microscope to them!

    The NCAA needs to rule as ineligible any player who took the AFAM classes - WHICH WERE FAKE!! Any victories won in which ineligible players played must be forfeited. Amongst other victories, the 2005 and 2009 bball national titles are absolutely tainted. The sad thing is that the teams they beat can never have those victories back.

    UNC - tell the NCAA who was in those classes! Clean up your house!

  • randow23 Jan 17, 2014

    I worked with a former UNC football player. He didn't last 3 months in a job that only required a HS diploma or equivalency. He was a health care tech at a developmental disability center.

  • borealbob1952 Jan 17, 2014

    OMG- the hole grows by the minute. I have a strong hunch (based on direct first hand observation) that half of the revenue athletes never bothered to even take the SAT/ACT. They actually claim they never even saw a scantron form before. Stop the coverup and start fixing this disgraceful problem.

  • philipw Jan 17, 2014

    So who has it right? I suggest WRAL invite some of the athletes to come down and read on the air, say, from Dr Seuss books or the Bible, and see how well they read.

    It is high time for UNC to round up the balls and put them away and get back to education instead of entertaining. UNC Law '79