An advisor at UNC develops a grudge against the Journalism school. To retaliate, she devises some embellished anecdotes about the school to share with the local newspaper. Although she presents no evidence to verify her anecdotes, the newspaper prints her story, and the subsequent fame inflates this ostensible whistleblower’s sense of self-importance. She then shares fabricated research findings on journalism students’ ACT/SAT scores with CNN. A History professor who likewise has a grudge against the Journalism school joins the disgruntled advisor’s crusade, and they write a book together. In their book, they share their findings from their research on the grades earned and classes taken by UNC journalism students from the past 25 years. Without the journalism students' consent, the advisor and History professor chose the students for their study from among those working at the Daily Tar Heel (DTH).
Now take a moment to imagine the outrage from the former and current DTH student-journalists if that actually happened.
If you can imagine that outrage—and the accompanying feelings of violation and exploitation—then you can understand the way many former UNC athletes feel about Jay Smith and Mary Willingham since Willingham’s infamous tweet:
'05' UNC basketball champs starting 5 +1 took a combined 69 paper classes. truth=transcripts=transparency. A real education= #ncaareform— Paper Class Inc. (@paperclassinc) April 7, 2014
Willingham clearly violated the former basketball players’ privacy. As I have written before, FERPA is a law that protects students’ academic records not just from public dissemination but also from being accessed by university personnel who have no educational purpose to view the records. Anyone closely following the controversy at UNC has known about Willingham’s early FERPA violations (revealed in her above tweet and in her statement for the O’Bannon case.) I suspect, however, only those who have read Smith & Willingham’s book, Cheated, know it contains more examples of FERPA violations and unethical research.
For example, consider the table pictured below, from Smith & Willingham’s book:
For their book, Smith & Willingham appear to have gathered data from over two decades’ worth of athletes’ protected academic records. Such research methods go beyond FERPA violations. Research conducted on personal records qualifies as human subjects research. That means Smith & Willingham conducted human subjects research* without approval from the IRB and without obtaining informed consent from the subjects—the former athletes—in their study.
In other words, Jay Smith, a tenured professor, intentionally circumvented the IRB and violated basic research ethics.
This new offense is all the more egregious following Willingham's previous violations of research ethics—on a study for which Smith was a co-investigator.
Of course, for both Willingham's previous research and for Smith & Willingham's new research in their book, Smith believes he and Willingham are justified because their cause is good. He is right that college-athletics reform is a good cause. On many of the issues related to college athletics, I actually agree with Smith & Willingham. Yet he is still profoundly wrong about his and Willingham’s research. Exploiting former UNC athletes—without their consent—for the purported benefit of future college athletes is not justified. Since the federal government passed the National Research Act of 1974, researchers can no longer decide on their own whether the benefits of their research outweigh the potential harm to the subjects. Researchers are now ethically and legally obligated to inform subjects about potential harm—including emotional harm that could result from the researchers’ publicizing the findings—and to obtain consent from subjects. Again, however, Smith & Willingham did not inform the former athletes about the research or obtain consent to conduct the research.
Smith & Willingham also believe they are justified because they are ostensibly functioning as whistleblowers. However, they—and their supporters—fundamentally misunderstand the relation between whistleblowers and private documents. Edward Snowden gathered and disseminated official government documents and communications between governmental administrators, showing that the government spies on innocent private citizens. He did not himself spy on innocent private citizens and then release information thereby gathered. A whistleblower does not violate the privacy of the very people for whom he or she claims to be advocating. Yet that is exactly what Smith & Willingham have done. Contrary to their distorted self-portrayals, Smith & Willingham are more comparable to the Sony hackers than to Edward Snowden.
Many have lauded Smith & Willingham for their work. I, however, do not judge a person by the cause for which he or she advocates. I judge a person by the tactics he or she uses to advocate for their cause. By that standard, Jay Smith and Mary Willingham are not good people.
The UNC Policy Manual states that a tenured faculty member may be disciplined for
misconduct of such a nature as to indicate that the individual is unfit to continue as a member of the faculty, including violations of professional ethics, mistreatment of students or other employees, research misconduct, financial fraud, criminal, or other illegal, inappropriate or unethical conduct. To justify serious disciplinary action, such misconduct should be either (i) sufficiently related to a faculty member’s academic responsibilities as to disqualify the individual from effective performance of university duties, or (ii) sufficiently serious as to adversely reflect on the individual’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to be a faculty member.
Smith's violating former athletes' privacy and conducting human subjects research without IRB approval clearly meets the standard for disciplinary action. UNC should therefore discipline Jay Smith immediately.
*Smith may argue that the research in their book does not technically qualify as research because it was not designed to contribute to generalizable knowledge. Such an argument, I believe, would be specious. Smith & Willingham's campaign is based on the premise that college "profit-sport" athletes—in general—do not get a "real education." Smith & Willingham have written their book as a case study that illustrates what they perceive as the general corruption of college athletics, thereby contributing to society's generalizable knowledge of the college athlete experience.
Regardless, Smith knows that the IRB, not the researcher, decides whether a study qualifies as research, and he and Willingham intentionally circumvented the IRB to conduct their research on former athletes' academic records.