Records show communications issues between Willingham, UNC

Posted May 16, 2014
Updated May 17, 2014

— In an email dated July 18, 2013, Mary Willingham wrote to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost James Dean telling him that her research into learning disabilities and ADHD in incoming freshman student athletes showed “a significant population of athletes unprepared for the rigors of University classrooms.”

Willingham, who launched into the national spotlight in January with a CNN report in which she claimed that many student athletes at UNC enter the school reading below a third grade level, has been under fire from the university which employed her ever since.

Willingham says her data is objective and accurate; the university says an independent review of her work shows that the conclusions drawn cannot be made with her data set and her research methods go beyond what she outlined in her application. 

"The truth is we (UNC), had students that read and wrote under grade level," Willingham said Friday while joining Adam and Joe. "The athletes need more help to get a real education."

Willingham’s research, her collection methods and her dissemination of the data have put the researcher and UNC at odds since that time. A look at emails between Willingham and school faculty, and Willingham’s application to perform her research, illuminate that difference of opinion.

Six months after Willingham alerted Dean to the problem, Jeanne Lovmo, the university’s compliance director in the Office of Human Research Ethics, asked Willingham to cease her work.

"Any further use of these data in the absence of IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval constitutes a University and federal violation,” Lovmo wrote.

The university forbade Willingham from releasing her research without a second application and review. 

Willingham has claimed that action in effect ended her work.

The school released a public statement stating her research was not actually suspended because it was never approved in the first place.

Willingham pointed her research findings to high-revenue sports - football and basketball - saying that many were put on a track that kept them on the field instead of in the classroom.

"Athletes of profit sports should be able to major in whatever they want, and not be limited with their choice," Willingham said. "My research shows that the athletes are not college ready, and we (UNC) couldn't fulfill our promise, which is a real education."

Willingham said she plans to leave the university after the Spring 2014 semester because of a hostile work environment, but UNC stated that they would afford her the same opportunity to get research approval as anyone else.

“I do believe that when she originally applied to do the research, she had good intentions,” said Bradley Bethel, a reading and writing specialist at UNC. “Later, as she got absorbed into the controversies, and as the media started exploiting her, she began to misrepresent what the research had been.”

Bethel pointed out that Willingham’s application for her research was specifically designed to look at learning disabilities and ADHD studies, but she later claimed that she was tasked with looking at reading levels.

Willingham insists that she filled out her applications properly and even consulted the IRB for help in her accuracy.

“Her argument is a diversion away from the facts that her methodology was completely flawed,” Bethel said. “Either she fabricated her methodology to come up with the statistics she had or she fabricated her statistics. There’s no way to tell for sure which one, but at some point she started fabricating.”

The paper trail shows a gross amount of miscommunications between the two sides.

The Timeline
May 16, 2008 - When Willingham first informed the university of her intentions to study learning disabilities and the increased potential for ADD/ADHD in freshmen student athletes in May of 2008, Willingham noted that the study would not be funded and it would be a secondary analysis of records with coded data.

In her application, Willingham indicated she would collect  identifiers such as names and dates of birth as well as “generalizable knowledge.”

According to her own proposal, she was not to have direct interaction with the 46 subjects she had grouped.

Based on Willingham’s responses on the IRB approval form, it was determined that her research did “not require IRB approval,” nor did it reach into the federal definition of “human subjects research.”

Jan. 4, 2013 – Willingham again followed university protocol in January of 2013 when she submitted a post-approval modification form to her research that requested her subject pool be expanded from 46 freshmen student athletes to 184.

It was at this point that the university saw their first flags and requested she adhere to “pending stipulating change(s) and/or clarification(s).”

On Jan. 8, 2013, Willingham said all her data would be “de-identified” and links to identifiable data will be “destroyed before importation” into the collection system.

The next day, the Office of Research Ethics again ruled that her study didn’t require IRB approval.

April, 8, 2013 – Willingham submitted another post-approval modification form in which she asked to add Dr. Richard Southall, the director of exercise and sport science, to the research team as a "co-investigator.”

There was no issue with the request in the eyes of the university and it was processed the next day without needing IRB approval.

June 24, 2013 – A third member of the research team was added -- Dr. Jay Smith from the history department.  Again, no IRB approval was required. 

July 18, 2013 – Willingham wrote an email to Provost James Dean with the findings of her research. In it she outlined:

  • 85 percent of her 183 researched subjects had come from the football and basketball teams
  • 110 of 183 (60 percent) had reading scores between 4th and 8th grade levels
  • 8-10 percent are non-readers (39 percent incidence of a learning disability and/or AHDH)
  • 45 of 183 (24 percent) had GPA’s under 2.0 with over half (94 of 183) at 2.3 or lower

Willingham added that the low GPAs were knowingly aided by “UNC’s paper class system” and offered to Dean that academic fraud would continue unless intensive reading instruction was offered.

Nov. 12, 2013 – Now five years into the study, and with the help of two other investigators, Willingham again asked to modify the study and include “graduation trends.”

Again, she received a letter from OHRE stating that no IRB approval was necessary.

Jan. 8 – Mary Willingham appears on CNN as part of an expose on college athletes, noting that many were reading at levels equivalent to third graders.

No specific athletes were named in the piece, but Willingham said that she was part of a culture of cheating and admitted to signing forms that prevented NCAA violations.

UNC issued a statement saying they did not believe Willingham’s claims.

Jan. 12 – Six months after she initially presented her findings to Dean, and less than a week after taking her findings to the media, Willingham received an email from Dean asking for a meeting to discuss the data collected. It read, “I want to assure you that the University takes your concerns very seriously. The integrity of our educational processes and the welfare of our students are matters of utmost concern.”

Later in the same email, Dean stated to Willingham that she has refused to turn over the data sheet for review by the university despite being asked for it “on several occasions.”

After a meeting the following Monday in Dean’s office, he emailed her calling their conversation “inadequate and disappointing.” Willingham followed up with a spreadsheet that included all the identifiable data Dean requested.

Jan. 16 – Willingham received a letter from Lovmo that stated, “It has come to our attention that the dataset currently in your possession contains identifiers, which contradicts your earlier claims. Therefore, we must rescind our prior determination, effective immediately.”

While the university contends that they did not suspend approval for Willingham’s research, Lovmo’s letter said, “if you wish to continue with the research using these data, please submit a full application for review by the IRB. Any continued use of these data in the absence of IRB approval constitutes a violation of University and federal policies for protection of human subjects.”

Jan. 17 – Now informed that the study has reached a standstill, Willingham’s fellow researcher Southall emailed her to ask if second-hand parties were precluded from advancing their work.  He also noted that the data set he was working with was in fact de-identified with names removed and only subject numbers assigned. The only variables he saw were race, gender, major and sport.

Jan. 21 – Two weeks after Willingham appeared on CNN, and almost a week after Willingham’s research was halted, IRB Coordinator David Tegnell emailed David Borasky, deputy director of the Office of Human Research Ethics, saying that any research connecting Willingham’s study at UNC-CH and a related study at UNC-Greensboro – also under her name – could not be connected and the CNN story is thus “inaccurate.”

In a press release by UNC-CH dated Jan. 21, Daniel Nelson, the OHRE director, stated that “We did not suspend Mary Willingham’s research … it was our realization that the researchers had, in fact, been in possession of named data all along.”

Jan. 23 – Seeking to have her data live on, Willingham emailed Borasky asking if she could remove the identifying information from her data, destroy all other files, and turn it over to a third-party research team at a separate institution. She states the data would be limited to “the primary data collection from 2004 – 2012.”

Borasky’s response does not say the word “no,” but again adds loopholes for Willingham including a second definition of “primary data,” a need for consent of use and a concern over student information sharing across third-party lines.

Feb 20 – Willingham testified in District Court that she had “applied for jobs outside of athletics at UNC beginning in 2009 because the pressure to keep students eligible had eclipsed learning and academic integrity… I was tired of seeing the disparity in privileged students and underprivileged football players in particular.”

April 21 - Willingham announced she will leave UNC-CH at the end of the spring semester following a meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt.


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  • RDcallsit May 20, 2014

    I don't see what's so hard to believe about athletes being below grade average. have you ever listened to a baller speak after a game? the comparatively, have you ever heard a non-athlete student speak on any random topic? they can speak, and read. I'm regretting this already but clearly the majority of star athletes across major college sports prosper in their athletic gift and not from reading and writing, or speaking in complete meaningful sentences. I'm a TARHEEL lifer, but there's no way anyone could convince me otherwise that our star athletes are brought in to play - not to become a part of academia.

  • 903isac0ward May 20, 2014 poor wulfie. Years of playing second fiddle have made you angry.

    you poor little thing

  • Terry Watts May 19, 2014
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    What motivation does Willingham have to not be "honest"??? She risk(s) her professional credibility for what exactly???

    Meanwhile UNC stands to lose NCAA stature, money and athletic prestige. What motivation do they have to be "honest"???

  • LuvsThePack May 19, 2014

    HEELSFOREVER, it is not that we WANT to believe every word she says. We already know this scandal is far and deep at Carolina, and has been for decades. It is only a matter of if we can cut through the corruption enough to prove it, and further, will the NCAA act on it even if we do?

    It is that we have no reason not to believe her. She tried to get something done long before going public with this. Personally, I don't think she just wants to bring down Carolina. I think she has a vendetta against the entire collegiate sports system and the NCAA.

    I know you guys want to find this technicality or that misstep in order to hurt her credibility and help Carolina limp through this unscathed. But the way she has been vilified by the UNC administration should be an indicator of where their priorities are.

    At the end of the day, when we lay our heads down to go to sleep, we all know in our hearts that Carolina is a cheating machine. Even if you guys can never admit that publicly.

  • heelsforever May 19, 2014

    State fans want to believe evertything she's said/written is true and 100% on the up and up, while Carolina fans want to believe that everything she said/wrote is fraught with errors.

    Seems to me that she wasn't completely forthright with UNC and also seems to me that UNC isn't being honest either. Honestly, I don't trust either.

  • 1jalapeno May 16, 2014

    Why was Dr. William Friday and the Knight Commission on College Athletics formed? Was it to prevent exactly the kind of behavior outlined by Mary Willingham? She wasn't the first to recognize the athlete/student problem in prime time college athletic programs.

  • wjr5108 May 16, 2014

    Instead of acknowledging the patent fraud & corruption in big time college sports, something that is a silly diversion from a university's prime mission of education best left to the professional leagues, UNC tars the messenger & digs in deeper. The problems associated with college football & basketball are well known and these ancillary entertainments are best left to the professional leagues. The perverse priorities of universities is easily illustrated in the patently absurd salary of a basketball coach at over 9 million per year.

  • disgusted2010 May 16, 2014

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    So true, poor old Dan, couldn't find his backside with both hands, Kane thinks this is going to be a Pulitzer prize winning scandal. So much for a has been reporter at a has been newspaper.

  • LuvsThePack May 16, 2014

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    And we ALL know that is all that matters at UN*C! Athletic competition!

    DEAD LAST in a 15-university conference in APR. Put that in yer pipe and smoke it!

  • LuvsThePack May 16, 2014

    View quoted thread

    And there is nothing wrong with her research OR her methodology. This will all come out in the end. This is just more smoke and mirrors from a university that is trying hard as it can to stave off the public from learning about all that was going on.