No, Mr. Wolverton, the UNC administration does not think that "undermining the messenger" is a legitimate means of defending the university, nor did the administration engage in any such undermining.
Rather, the Provost, Jim Dean, subjected Willingham's research claims to critical scrutiny, which is exactly what administrators at a research university should do. Yet, like Paul Barrett and several other journalists this year, Wolverton seems to think that the claims of anyone whom journalists have designated a whistleblower are not subject to debate. According to the journalistic logic Wolverton espouses, when a disgruntled university employee makes allegations against the university's athletics department, the university should accept the allegations without question.
Most of us who work in higher education, however, believe universities should not only teach critical inquiry but model it as well. UNC attempted to do that with Willingham, but, as emails between her and Dean demonstrate, she resisted.
Public Records Request for Willingham's Emails
Recently, an impassioned UNC alum sent me emails from a public records request he made for documents and information related to Willingham. Unfortunately, though the emails the university released included one from July 2013 and several after January 2014, no documents between those dates were included in the release. Nonetheless, the released emails begin to illuminate the truth about events the public has hitherto relied on Willingham to recount.
Before examining the released emails, however, I want to consider the significance of the withheld documents. Willingham's correspondence and records with university administrators and her co-conspirator Jay Smith likely reveal essential information about her activities and experience related to her public claims. For example, at some point during those months, she illicitly accessed and analyzed the grades of the 2013 football team. Did she email anyone about when, how, and with whom she accessed and analyzed those grades? Did anyone from the university, particularly the Registrar, email her afterward about the FERPA implications of accessing those grades? The public has a right to know, and UNC students should demand evidence that the university handles FERPA violations appropriately. Therefore, the university must eventually release those documents.
In the meantime, the university's withholding months of Willingham's emails demonstrates that, contrary to the N&O's and Pack Pride's ballyhooing, UNC's often slow release of public documents is not necessarily a stonewalling strategy. In this case, Willingham's emails would likely provide damning evidence against her and would thereby counter her presentation as an innocent victim of a hostile work environment. Yet despite the likely benefit to the university, the public records office has still to comply fully with the request for Willingham's documents and information. Unlike the N&O, I trust that the university has a legitimate reason for the delay.
Having considered the significance of the documents not included in the release of public records, we can now examine the emails that were released.
Emails Regarding Willingham's Research
On July 18, 2013, nearly six months before Willingham seized the national spotlight, she sent the following email to Provost Jim Dean:
Jan Boxill mentioned that she spoke with you. I have reviewed academic data for 183 athletes admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012 (about 160 athletes are admitted each year). Although several teams are represented in this group, the great majority of the students (85%) come from the revenue sports ‐ mens football and basketball.
These numbers speak to the presence at UNC of a significant population of athletes unprepared for the rigors of University classrooms. 60% (110) of these students have reading scores below the 50% range ‐‐ constitutes 4th‐8th grade reading levels ‐ 8‐10% are non‐readers (39% incidence of LD and or ADHD). If they had applied to any NC Community College, they would have had to, prior to their full acceptance and starting a course of study, complete one to three semesters of developmental reading coursework. 20‐25% of these students would have to complete a general competency course prior to the three semesters of reading. Of the 183 students, 45 (about 24%) had UNC GPA's under 2.0, thus putting them at risk of academic disqualification. Ninety‐four of the 183 students, over half, had GPA's under 2.3. Keep in mind that the bogus system of eligibility ‐ UNC's paper class system ‐ was assisting these players to stay on the court/field. That system no longer exists.
We still, however, have a problem that needs to be addressed. Unless we offer intensive reading instruction and a course of curriculum for our profit sport athletes, academic fraud will continue. Chancellor Thorp said that my experience in athletics and data about literacy was important to share with our leaders. I would welcome the opportunity to have a conversation with you. My career also started in HR ‐‐training and organizational development. I worked at Amgen during the late 80's and 90's. My husband (who also worked at Amgen) and I moved to Lake Hogan Farms in 1999 to start new careers. You and I know some of the same people in this amazing community. Thank you for your leadership.
Before examining the next email included in the release, I need to make some critical points about one of Willingham's claims, which I had overlooked when I read it elsewhere. She wrote, "60% (110) of these students have reading scores below the 50% range ‐‐ constitutes 4th‐8th grade reading levels." Although her claim that 60% of her sample read between the 4th to 8th-grade levels has been sufficiently refuted, her corresponding claim that those athletes scored below the 50% range has not been examined thoroughly. As a learning specialist familiar with educational assessment, I do not even need Willingham's data to identify egregious errors in that claim. First, because percentile ranks vary according to students' ages, percentile ranks for a group of students can only be correlated with grade equivalents if all the students in the group are the same age. Although most of the athletes in Willingham's sample were probably 18, some of them were likely 19. Second, and more importantly, even if all the athletes in her sample were 18, Willingham's correlation is significantly distorted. Eighteen-year-olds scoring just below the 50th percentile would earn a grade equivalent of 11.7 to 12.7—in other words, a grade equivalent of a high school junior to senior. To earn a grade equivalent of an 8th-grader or lower, an 18-year-old would have to score below the 10th percentile, not, as Willingham asserted, the 50th percentile.
As I have consistently demonstrated on this blog, Willingham's research claims are completely unsound and reflect either gross incompetence or rank dishonesty. Apparently, though, when she approached Dean in July 2013, she just expected him and other university leaders to accept her claims without scrutiny. However, as the next email demonstrates, Dean rightfully attempted to cooperate with Willingham to examine her claims critically, and for several months she resisted.
On January 12, Dean sent the following email:
I am writing to arrange a meeting with you on Monday to discuss your dataset. I want to reassure 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. You are well‐aware that the University has been investigating issues associated with our academic program for the past three years; it is a key reason we launched the Student‐Athlete Academic Initiative Working Group in August of 2013. Our group is looking at everything, and your dataset should be a part of that review.
Among the items for our discussion on Monday is your research. I’m having trouble understanding why you won’t provide us with your dataset. I’m sure you are aware you have been asked for it on several occasions. To refresh your memory:
After you emailed me in July 2013 with your observations, I asked Debbi Clarke to meet with you on my behalf. You initially refused to do so, but I was happy when you finally agreed to meet. In that October 30, 2013 meeting in SASB North, Debbi asked you for your underlying data. She even brought a flash drive with her so it would be easy for you to copy the data. You refused, stating you were restricted from sharing the data by Institutional Review Board rules.
Last month, you asked to present your opinions in an open, public meeting with the Faculty Athletics Committee, and were invited to do so. I was present and heard your remarks. You shared in detail – and very passionately – your perspective on ways the University could better meet the educational needs of our student‐athletes. You said your views were informed by your work from 2003‐2010 in Academic Support for Student‐Athletes and your work since 2010 outside of the athletics realm. In your remarks, you specifically mentioned “your” dataset which included data from 2004 to 2012 on 186 student‐athletes. The FAC asked for your underlying data. You replied that you did not have the ability to share your data because of restrictions imposed by the Institutional Review Board.
Just last Thursday, Joy Renner, Chair of the Faculty Athletics Committee wrote you and again asked for your data. You declined her request, stating “End of discussion.”
As someone who has worked in an academic institution for many years, I know you understand that a hallmark of academic research is peer review and that sharing research data and methodology is key to that review. Every researcher on this campus knows that conclusions have no value unless fully explained and supported by the raw data and appropriate, disciplined analysis. That is why researchers are always ready to share their raw data and to explain their methodologies so that others within the academy can test and debate their conclusions.
I appreciate that you have stated on several occasions that you could not share your data due to privacy issues. I want to assure you that our Institutional Review Board, which operates pursuant to the requirements of federal law, has no policy that restricts your ability to share your raw data with the Provost. As the Chief Academic Officer, I am responsible for the integrity and oversight of all research on campus. This should give you every confidence that you are permitted to share the data with me.
It is essential that we meet tomorrow, but I will schedule the meeting any time on Monday that is convenient for you. I am aware that you advised Joy Renner that the University has the data you worked with. Of course, the University has significant amounts of data related to its students, but we are asking you to identify with specificity the data in your analysis. Just to be clear, please bring with you on flash drive or on paper all of the specific raw data you and/or your collaborators have collected, reviewed, and/or analyzed in reaching the conclusions you’ve reported publically, published or otherwise disseminated, and/or gathered pursuant to the research projects outlined in the submissions you made to the University’s Institutional Review Board from 2008 to the present.
Please let me know no later than 10 a.m. Monday what time Monday you would like to meet. I appreciate your attention to this, and thanks in advance for your prompt response.
Finally, please let me know that you have received this message.
Late that night, Willingham responded:
I was tied up this evening and on the way to my first event when you emailed your request at 4:21pm. Can you confirm who will be attending the meeting? Will Beth Lyons and Steve Farmer attend? I am checking in with my co-investigators who have requested to be present at the meeting. I also need to revisit with the IRB office about what is ethically permissible. With regards to my job change in 2010, please review my original position description (filed with my grievance) as Assistant Director of CSSAC. My work with athletes continued as noted in the organizational structure/chart.
Please be aware that I have been assigned multiple duties during my 're-assignment'. The beginning of the semester is especially critical given the new demands on my time. Tutor training and graduation advising are my top priorities this week. I will work diligently tomorrow to meet your request. Mary
Dean responded early the next morning:
Mary - I will have with me only someone to take notes. Who it is depends on the time you choose.
Neither the availability of your co-investigators nor your ability to talk with IRB is a reason to delay the meeting. I need to talk with you today, and you need to bring your data set. I have already told you that there are no IRB rules that preclude your sharing this information with me. IRB is the responsibility of Barbara Entwisle, who reports to me.
If I need to speak with your supervisor to say that you will be with me for some time this afternoon, I am happy to do so.
Again, please tell me when you would like to meet.
Willingham and Dean then agreed to meet at 4 PM, and Willingham sent him a spreadsheet. After their meeting, Dean responded as follows:
Mary – while I enjoyed our conversation today, this response is inadequate and disappointing. It is not at all a sign of good faith on your part. I want you to send me the actual spreadsheet that you used to make your claims. It should include names and sports, as you have said that you have this information. I am not going to do or have someone else do hours of work to recreate something you already have and are required to give to me. Also, this spreadsheet does not have any information that would have allowed you to make claims about grade level reading, for example, none of the SATA data that you told me about today. Read my original letter to you again if this is not clear.
I have no idea why you would have done this, but I am directing you to send me the actual complete spreadsheet that you use immediately.
Late that night, January 13, Willingham sent the following response:
The last spread sheet did have the information necessary to make the claims. Attached is a spreadsheet with identifiable data per your request. I have also attached the abstract with some coding information. I request that any further emails be sent directly to my attorney - Michael Hausfeld, llp
Notice whom Willingham names as her attorney: Michael Hausfeld, the same attorney who represented Ed O'Bannon in the recent class action lawsuit won against the NCAA. Hausfeld is a powerful attorney, and many have suspected he was pulling Willingham's strings throughout her media campaign against UNC. However, this summer, when Willingham filed a lawsuit against the university, the legal counsel representing her was Raleigh-based attorney Heydt Philbeck. Suspecting that Willingham had named Hausfeld only in an attempt to intimidate the university, I contacted Hausfeld's firm and asked whether Willingham had ever retained him as her attorney. The firm responded that they cannot comment.
Regardless, the above emails demonstrate that Willingham, not the university, was the one guilty of stonewalling. Of course, her evasion tactics were executed for good reason: her research claims were more bogus than Julius Nyang'oro's classes.
Alleged Death Threats
Also included among the released emails were emails related to the death threats Willingham claimed she received. On January 14, CNN reported that she had received "four death threats, and more than 30 other alarming messages." However, emails suggest she was not actually very alarmed.
On January 8, the day the infamous CNN story was published, UNC Chief of Staff Erin Schuettpelz proactively sent the following email to Willingham:
I just wanted to let you know that UNC Public Safety is available to assist with any threatening emails or phone calls you may receive. I have asked them to contact you directly to offer this assistance. Please do let me know if I can be of additional help.
The next day a UNC police officer sent the following email to UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken and several others:
I just spoke with Ms. Willingham regarding the threats against her. She stated most of what she has received were “Hate mail”, four were threatening. She does not consider the threats to be real and deleted the emails. She stated she was aware this situation may happen and is not concerned at this point.
I asked her to contact DPS if the situation or her feelings changed. I also informed her I would contact CHPD to increase random patrols near her residence off Cameron Ave. I spoke with Sgt. Britt who is making those arrangements now.
Please let me know if you need anything further.
Notice what CNN neglected to report: that Willingham did not consider the threats to be real. In fact, Willingham was so unconcerned she deleted the emails before showing them to anyone. That's right: no one has seen the alleged death threats.
Despite the damage Willingham's defamatory claims have rendered to student-athletes and athletics personnel, hate mail and threats are reprehensible responses from UNC fans, and I am glad the university treated Willingham's claims seriously even in the absence of evidence.
In fact, as all the emails above reveal, university leaders consistently treated Willingham's unfounded claims seriously. Provost Dean and others attempted to understand those claims thoroughly and respond to them thoughtfully. However, contrary to the media's portrayal, Willingham was the one who refused cooperation. When her claims were not blindly accepted, she resisted further inquiry. When her claims were refuted, she and the media dismissed the critique as "shooting the messenger." When her claims were not even heard during the O'Bannon trial, she sued the university.
Willingham has obfuscated the truth about a difficult time in UNC's history. However, I will continue gathering information and attempting to correct the distortions she has propagated.
Some truth, I suspect, is in the emails.