RALEIGH — University of North Carolina officials appear to have violated state law when they criticized a reading specialist who concluded that some basketball and football players couldn’t read at a third-grade level, the head of a government accountability advocacy group says.
School officials’ actions make UNC-Chapel Hill look like a bully, and they will make others hesitant to come forward, the president of the Government Accountability Project wrote in his letter to Chancellor Carol Folt. GAP President Louis Clark urged UNC-CH to investigate whether school officials have harassed or intimidated Mary Willingham, who worked with athletes and researched their reading skills.
“In my 36 years of dealing with whistleblower cases, this course of action seems necessary and palpably prudent, and I implore you to undertake such a step immediately,” Clark wrote in the letter, dated March 6.
He also demanded that the school release the names of a third-party independent board that school officials have said is investigating Willingham’s analysis of athletes’ literacy. “Specifically, how were members selected, how is the panel’s independence guaranteed and what is its current status?” he wrote.
UNC responded Friday evening to GAP, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that calls itself the nation’s leading whistle-blower protection and advocacy organization. School spokesman Joel Curran said the school expects to release an external review of Willingham’s data soon. He also pointed to the hiring of Kenneth Wainstein, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department, “as independent counsel to conduct a new inquiry.”
The school hired Wainstein in February to conduct an independent review of irregularities in an academic department featuring classes with significant athlete enrollments. Neither Wainstein nor UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon immediately responded when asked whether Wainstein is investigating Willingham’s claims or treatment.
North Carolina’s law says state employees should “be free of intimidation or harassment when reporting to public bodies about matters of public concern …” It also says employees can’t be discharged, threatened or discriminated against for reporting problems, including gross mismanagement or gross abuse of authority and fraud.
In a CNN story in January, Willingham said her research on 183 football or basketball players at UNC from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level.
During a Faculty Council meeting, Provost James W. Dean Jr. said the findings were based largely on standardized scores in a 10-minute timed vocabulary test that isn’t an appropriate way to measure literacy levels. Dean, the school’s top academic officer, called it “flawed analysis” and said it was unfair to use the data to say students can’t read. He said outside consultants will review their analysis of Willingham’s data.
That’s a classic response to whistle-blowers, Willingham said. But she said what’s important is the students. “It’s about the athletes who are not getting what we promised them. They’re not getting a real education. … And they leave without anything except some injuries and some concussions,” she said.
She said she hopes her situation results in a policy that protects whistle-blowers and produces real leaders at the school. “We have amazing people who work at this university,” she said. “We need leadership. We just don’t have any.”
In an interview, Clark said he was hopeful when Folt said in January that academic oversight had failed for years, leading to no-show classes with significant athlete enrollment and unauthorized grade changes. But he’s disappointed with the university’s response to Willingham’s research.
“She doesn’t need to embrace the coverup, and she doesn’t need to sit there while the provost essentially trashes Mary in front of the faculty,” he said of Folt, who is in her first year as chancellor.
In his letter, Clark takes issue with three parts of school officials’ response to Willingham’s analysis: comments made in response to the CNN story; the Jan. 17 faculty meeting; and Dean’s public statements.
UNC-CH initially denied Willingham’s claim and called it unfair to student athletes, and said the university had not seen her data. The denial and attempts to discredit Willingham resulted in UNC-CH being perceived as a bully, Clark wrote.
“This conduct has a chilling effect that will dissuade other potential witnesses from coming forward,” he wrote.
He also challenged Dean’s comments in a Bloomberg Businessweek article where the provost said Willingham “said that our students can’t read, our athletes can’t read, and that’s a lie.” Dean conceded in the article that he had misspoken. In a later article, the reporter said Dean said he doesn’t think Willingham is a liar.
“It is simply unacceptable for a person in a position of such authority to make disparaging comments about an employee who has raised legitimate and important concerns about the education of student-athletes,” Clark wrote.
The school’s whistle-blower protection policy, which relies on state law, says school employees should be “free of intimidation or harassment” when they come forward. Considering the public comments from school officials, “it is difficult for me to see how these occurrences do not qualify as unlawful intimidation or harassment and violations of both the UNC-CH policy and state law,” Clark writes.