Monday, September 22, 2014

Emails Demonstrate Mary Willingham Resisted UNC's Attempts to Examine Her Research

Two weeks ago, Brad Wolverton, a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, published an article praising Mary Willingham for her campaign against college athletics. In his article, Wolverton portrays Willingham as a virtuous whistleblower challenging a compromised UNC administration unwilling to accept the truth Willingham speaks. He wrote, "North Carolina’s administrators seem to think that, by undermining the messenger, they can defend the integrity of the flagship campus."

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:

Provost 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:

Dear Mary, 
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:

Provost Dean,
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:

Provost Dean,
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.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The UNC Scandal: By the Numbers

A week ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education joined the ranks of BusinessWeek, CBS, CNN, ESPN, HBO, and Yahoo! Sports as national media outlets that have resorted to parroting the N&O rather than engaging in original reporting on the UNC scandal. The Chronicle published two articles, on the same day, covering the UNC scandal, though no new information has surfaced since Mary Willingham's plagiarism was discovered. Both articles distorted the facts, reflecting the typical eagerness journalists show to report on an athletics scandal. I was especially disappointed because I have spent time talking with both authors, and so I hoped they would demonstrate more fairness and rigor in their reporting.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Writing with Integrity: A Free Lesson for Dan Kane and Andrew Carter

Andrew Carter has been quite defensive lately. Earlier this summer, during an exchange he and I had on Twitter, the UNC beat writer was especially sensitive to my accusation that his newspaper is consistently biased toward sensationalism.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The UNC Media Scandal: “Whatever,” Rosa and Bill

This essay is written by guest author Thomas Eckerman, an attorney who received his B.A. degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and his J.D. degree from Tulane University School of Law.

One of the last and weakest arguments of deceptive people is “You can’t shoot the messenger.” But there is a moral responsibility to figuratively shoot a messenger bearing false claims. The local and national media ignored that moral responsibility with respect to Mary Willingham; and in their attempts to scandalize UNC, they scandalized themselves.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jay Smith Makes Accusation of Mental Instability

On April 1, I posted an essay, titled "Silent Dishonesty," in which I revealed that Distinguished Professor Jay Smith knew former learning specialist Mary Willingham had publicly misrepresented the intended purpose of her infamous research on UNC athletes' reading levels.

According to Smith, my exposing his silent dishonesty makes me mentally unstable.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mary Willingham Appears to have Plagiarized Passages of her Master's Thesis

Oh, the irony.

Unfortunately for Mary Willingham, her Pack Pride cheerleaders are not the only fan base who can scan documents for plagiarism.

Willingham, readers may recall, is the former reading specialist who became The N&O's whistleblower extraordinaire in November 2012 when she made the unverified allegation that UNC academic support staff had tolerated cheating among athletes. In her breakout media appearance, Willingham contended that she became concerned about academic integrity early in her career working with athletes, after one athlete presented her with a paper Willingham described as a "cut-and-paste job."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Steering the Narrative (Part 3): The Martin Report

This is Part 3 of a four-part essay. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Omitting Key Findings

The N&O’s reporting and editorializing on the Martin Report may be best described as journalistic malfeasance, and executive editor John Drescher is the culprit most blameworthy.

Jim Martin is a former North Carolina governor and U.S. representative with a PhD in Chemistry. With the assistance of Baker Tilly, a national accounting firm, Martin conducted the most extensive investigation of the UNC scandal to date, gathering data as far back as 1994. After he concluded his investigation, he presented his Report to the UNC Board of Governors, on December 20, 2012. In Martin’s presentation, he distilled the Report down to 15 key findings that conjointly support his conclusion (pp. 71 – 74). However, his conclusionthat the AFRI/AFAM scandal was an academics scandal, not an athletics scandalwas not the conclusion Drescher was counting on for his star investigative reporter to win a Pulitzer.

In response, Drescher has coordinated a propaganda campaign to discredit the Report, grossly misrepresenting its findings in an editorial he himself wrote and directing four other N&O writers (with reinforcement from the editorial board) to dismiss the Report in similar fashion. Drescher and his staff’s strategy has been to overemphasize the importance of select findings while cunningly withholding reporting on the majority of the findings.

In Drescher’s editorial, published on February 1, 2013, his manipulation of the facts is so egregious it is not merely a matter of misinterpretation: it is a blatantly dishonest reading of the Martin Report. When one of Martin’s 15 key findings had to be retracted, Drescher seized the opportunity to exaggerate the significance of that finding and thereby call the entire Report into question. In both the title and the first sentence of his editorial, Drescher refers to the finding as a “key finding,” but nowhere in his editorial does he inform readers that the finding was just one of 15 key findings, the other 14 of which are still intact. (Throughout this essay, I will cite aspects of the other 14 findings. Readers interested in examining all 14 findings in their entirety should read pp. 71 – 74 of the Martin Report.)

The retracted finding was that an Athletics official and the Director of the Academic Support Program twice raised concerns, first during a meeting in 2002 and then in 2006, with the Faculty Athletics Committee about the lecture classes Julius Nyang’oro conducted as independent studies. After the Martin Report was released, Dan Kane queried the faculty members on that committee, and he discovered that Martin never interviewed them about those meetings. Moreover, none of the faculty members could recall concerns being raised. Unquestionably, Martin should have interviewed those faculty members to verify the claims about the two meetings, and without verification that finding should not be included in the Report.

However, that finding, again, was only one of 15 that Martin cited to support his conclusion. His other 14 findings remain incontrovertible, though Drescher editorializes as if they do not even exist. 

Drescher's editorial is replete with suggestions that Martin staked his conclusion entirely on that one retracted finding and that the entire Report reflects the questionableness of that finding. For example, after Drescher quotes Martin asserting that “findings and conclusions should be based on evidence, not hearsay and imagination,” Drescher smugly interjects, “If only that were what Martin’s report did.” In light of the unverified anecdotes and quotes Dan Kane has included in his reporting on the UNC scandal (the subject of the first two parts of this essay), Drescher’s criticizing Martin for a singular, ultimately irrelevant misstep is hypocritical in the extreme. What is more, Drescher knows the Martin Report’s 101 pages (including Addendum) contain an overwhelming amount of hard evidence, including voluminous statistical data, that extends well beyond the one retracted finding. Drescher's selective citing of the data demonstrates he has read the report and is intelligent enough to comprehend it; however, he is too committed to the sensationalized narrative to represent the Report's findings with fairness. 

Consider, for example, the following passage from Drescher’s editorial:

At issue were 172 bogus classes within the African and Afro-American Studies department. About 45 percent of the students in those classes were athletes; fewer than 5 percent of UNC students are athletes. Baker Tilly explained that discrepancy by noting that a disproportionate share of athletes are African-American and more likely to take a course in that department. 
That might be a factor. But the evidence also is overwhelming that the academic support staff, which at the time effectively reported to the athletic department, knew these classes did not meet and steered athletes toward them

Drescher’s reporting leaves readers with the impression that Martin merely rationalized athletes’ disproportionate enrollment in the anomalous AFRI and AFAM classes by citing the fact that UNC athletes are disproportionately African American. Drescher, however, neglects to mention an entire section of the Addendum, titled “Summary of ‘Clustering Analysis,’” which thoroughly demonstrates the seriousness with which Martin took the athletes’ disproportionate enrollment (pp. 5  6).

For his analysis of clustering, Martin and Baker Tilly investigated whether athletes’ enrollment in the grouping of anomalous “paper classes” was any higher than in other groupings of classes in which athletes were disproportionately enrolled, both within and outside the AFRI/AFAM department. After identifying several “cluster groupings” of classes across multiple departments, Martin investigated them to assess whether any irregularities in their administration had occurred. He found no irregularities in any cluster groupings outside the grouping of anomalous AFRI/AFAM classes. (The other cluster groupings are referred to as “cleared.”) The Report explains that one reason cluster groupings attracted athletes was because the classes fit into athletes’ exceptionally busy schedules better than did other sections of the same courses.

Most importantly, Martin and Baker Tilly found that athletes’ enrollment in several cleared cluster groupings across multiple departments was consistent with athletes’ enrollment in the grouping of anomalous classes. In the grouping of anomalous AFRI/AFAM classes, athletes’ enrollment rate was 44.9%; in the cleared cluster grouping of AFRI/AFAM classes, athletes’ enrollment rate was actually slightly higher, at 48.9%; and in the cleared cluster groupings outside the AFRI/AFAM department, athletes’ enrollment rates ranged from 44% to 47.7%. In other words, athletes’ enrollment in the grouping of anomalous classes was no more disproportionate than it was in several cleared cluster groupings of classes across multiple departments. All of the cluster groupings, including that of the “paper classes,” appear to have attracted athletes for the same reason: the classes accommodated athletes’ exceptionally busy schedules better than other classes.

Readers would not understand that, however, if Drescher’s editorial (and the N&O's news reports) were their only source of information.

Additionally, the percentage of football players majoring in AFRI or AFAM between 2001 - 2010 never exceeded 13%. Furthermore, only three times during that same timespan did the number of men’s basketball players majoring in AFRI or AFAM exceed two, and the percentage exceeded 25% only once. Yet Drescher avers that the “overwhelming” evidence demonstrates academic counselors “steered” athletes to the anomalous AFRI and AFAM classes. If “steered” in this context means anything other than sometimes recommended, then Drescher’s criteria for evidence do not reflect any epistemology with which I am familiar. Conjecture and insinuation are not typically understood as evidence.

Indeed, the narrative Drescher and his staff have been steering seems to be underscored by a uniquely journalistic epistemology that is defined by a single principle: a statement becomes true if a journalist can convince readers it is true. Journalism as a discipline of verification is clearly not the journalism Drescher practices.

Neglecting Context

As mentioned above, Drescher’s campaign against the Martin Report has been carried out by multiple N&O writers. Not surprisingly, Dan Kane has been at the forefront of the charge.

Altogether, the Martin Report and Addendum totals 101 pages and contains not only the key findings and the data on which those findings are based but also an explanation of the procedures, or methodology, by which Martin and Baker Tilly collected, analyzed, and interpreted the data. (If only Mary Willingham were so thorough.) Yet Kane, an investigative reporter, cites alarmingly scant data from the Report and never even mentions the procedures, allowing detractors to dismiss the data as a “smokescreen” meant to divert the public’s attention from the real scandal. (By the way, Pack Pride’s censure of the Martin Report’s emphasis on quantitative data is rather ironic in light of the fact that NCSU is best known for its Engineering school.)

Notwithstanding Kane’s complacent disregard for the procedures, the Report’s methodology provides context to and justification for the data, and it demonstrates the relation between the data, the interpretive findings, and the conclusion. To illustrate some of the primary procedures, I have included the below diagram from the Report, and I encourage those who want to gain a more comprehensive understanding to read the “Approach for Completion of this Review” section on pages 4 – 5 of the Report. Because this essay is already lengthy, the diagram will have to suffice for now so that we can focus on the data itself.

Again, Kane cites very little data from the Martin Report, selecting only that which he can attempt to explain away. His article written with Andrew Curliss following the release of the Addendum is the clearest example of Kane's selective reporting. For nearly every one of the few data points Kane and Curliss cite about athletes in the anomalous classes, they neglect to cite the corresponding data point about non-athletes. By so doing, they remove the context in which to understand the data, thereby leading readers to sensationalized inferences. Reporting statistics with little to no context has been one of the standard methods by which N&O journalists have steered the narrative.

For example, consider the lede and following sentence in Kane and Curliss’s article:

New data released Friday about a long-running academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill show athletes made up nearly half of the enrollments in 172 bogus classes within the African studies department, and also accounted for a just under half of 512 suspect grade changes during that period. 
Their average grade: 3.56, between a B-plus and an A-minus.

To readers unfamiliar with the Martin Report, Kane and Curliss’s opening two sentences may seem like a straightforward account of the findings. However, absent from the findings Kane and Curliss present are several other, related findings that provide context.

First, although Kane and Curliss mention the 172 anomalous AFRI and AFAM classes, they neglect to mention the finding that not all of the anomalous classes had athletes enrolled. In fact, there were more anomalous classes with only non-athletes enrolled (26) than there were anomalous classes with only athletes enrolled (21).

Furthermore, the isolated second sentence leaves readers with the impression that athletes were being graded with exceptional leniency. However, Kane and Curliss neglect to mention that the average grade point for athletes (3.56) was actually slightly lower than for non-athletes (3.63).

Additionally, like Drescher, Kane and Curliss mention that “nearly half of the enrollments” in the anomalous classes were athletes, but the reporters neglect to explain that the 44.9% athlete enrollment rate was no more disproportionate than it was in several cleared cluster groupings across multiple departments.

Kane and Curliss also neglect to report any context for understanding the unauthorized and suspected unauthorized grade changes. Among those irregular grade changes, Martin and Baker Tilly identified some that were made to permanent grades and some that were made to temporary grades. The distinction is important because, as the Report states,

We would expect student-athletes to have more temporary grade changes than non-athlete students, as the demands of an athletic schedule are more likely to create conflicts or delays in student-athletes’ abilities to [complete assignments] at scheduled times.

Therefore, in classes in which irregular grade changes to permanent and temporary grades occurred for athletes and non-athletes alike, we would only suspect preferential treatment for athletes if their permanent grades were irregularly changed at a rate higher than were non-athletes’ permanent grades. Martin and Baker Tilly found the opposite. The 22 irregular grade changes to athletes’ permanent grades constituted only 1.6% of athletes’ enrollments, whereas the 75 irregular grade changes to non-athletes’ permanent grades constituted 3% of non-athletes’ enrollments. In other words, non-athletes were almost twice as likely as athletes to receive an irregular grade change to a permanent grade.

In short, Drescher, Kane, and Curliss (and other N&O writers) have neglected to report multiple findings from the Martin Report, including the following four: (1) athletes enrolled in the “paper classes” no more disproportionately than they enrolled in several other, cleared cluster groupings of classes across multiple departments, (2) not all of the “paper classes” had athletes enrolled, and there were more classes with only non-athletes than there were classes with only athletes, (3) athletes’ average grade point in the “paper classes” was slightly lower than was non-athletes’ average grade point, and (4) non-athletes were nearly twice as likely as athletes to receive an irregular grade change to a permanent grade.

Those are not the findings of an athletics scandal.

In his editorial on the Martin Report, Drescher writes, “Martin and Baker Tilly seemed more determined to absolve the athletic department of blame than to get to the bottom of what went wrong.” If the straw man version of the Martin Report constructed by Drescher and his staff were the real version, then Drescher’s assertion would have merit. However, as Drescher knows, the straw man version is an insidious fabrication propagated by the N&O and parroted by complacent journalists from the national media. N&O writers have executed their campaign against the Martin Report by overemphasizing the importance of the one retracted finding and consistently reporting only select findings while omitting other findings that would provide context. When we examine the Martin Report ourselves and contrast it to the N&O’s straw man version of it, we see that the converse of Drescher’s assertion is more accurate: Drescher and his staff seemed more determined to implicate the Athletics department than to represent the findings of the Martin Report with fairness.

Part 4 is forthcoming but will be delayed beyond its originally intended publishing date.