Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Silent Dishonesty: Distinguished Professor Withholds Truth About Research on Athletes

At a public forum in April 2013, Jay Smith, UNC Distinguished Professor of History, provocatively argued that faculty and athletics departments should become more adversarial with each other. The reason: faculty are committed to truth, whereas athletics departments, Professor Smith averred, are committed to winning. According to his reasoning, the two commitments are mutually exclusive. Rather ironically, his actions since delivering his diatribe before a crowd of hundreds seem to support his reasoning. As I will demonstrate in this essay, Professor Smith himself seems to be the one so committed to winning he is willing to forgo his commitment to truth.

A few months after Professor Smith’s speech, at the beginning of September 2013, he and I had an impassioned email exchange regarding the controversies surrounding UNC athletics. He initiated the exchange with an attack on my credibility. His startling email came the same day sports journalist Frank DeFord published a piece, on NPR, about Mary Willingham. DeFord’s piece contained factually inaccurate information about Willingham, and so, in the comments section on the NPR website, I suggested “Mary Willingham may not be a credible source” and corrected the inaccurate information. Professor Smith eventually acknowledged that the facts in question were indeed incorrect as DeFord presented them, but in Professor Smith’s haste to attack me, he wrote, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” and he closed the email by writing, “Perhaps you should try to establish your own credibility first. You’ve got a ways to go.”

Before I go on, I need to quote Professor Smith from a more recent email. After I sent him my essay “Truth and Literacy at UNC,” he responded by accusing me of cowardice and self-contradictory behavior. More importantly, he also wrote, “I’d be happy to have all of our email exchanges published. Would you?”

Considering our emails are public documents, I do not need to justify my sharing those emails, but I nonetheless wanted to quote Professor Smith’s own words confirming his eagerness to share them. By the time he finishes reading this essay, however, I suspect he will wish he had not been so eager.

Smith and Willingham’s Research

Remember that Professor Smith is one of Mary Willingham’s co-investigators on her study of athletes’ reading levels and academic achievement (the other co-investigator being Richard Southall). With that fact in mind, let us recall the relevant developments in the story of that research.

  • On January 7, CNN published Willingham’s findings that 60% of her sample read at levels between 4th and 8th grade, and that another 10% read at levels lower than 4th grade, totaling 70% reading below high school level.
  • On January 10, Willingham filed testimony in the O’Bannon v. NCAA case, citing the aggregate grades of a “cohort” of 17 current football players to demonstrate how unsuccessful some underprepared athletes are in college.
  • On January 16, the Office of Human Research ordered Willingham to stop analysis and discussion of her research because she and her co-investigators never had approval to collect the athletes’ names and access their academic records.
  • Later on January 16, Willingham was quoted in The Daily Tar Heel, saying, “How would I do the research if I didn’t have the names? The study included how they were doing in school, their GPA.” She went on to say, “In any kind of institution, if you can get someone on a technicality you can squash their research and their findings.” Professor Smith was also quoted, defending her: “No media outlet has seen her datasheets.”
  • On January 17, UNC Provost Jim Dean presented to the Faculty Council a cogent refutation of Willingham’s findings, declaring her research “unworthy of this university.” At the meeting, Frank Baumgartner, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, accused the Provost of stonewalling.
  • On January 29, Willingham was quoted again in The Daily Tar Heel, responding to the IRB’s halting her research: “I think they’re all in bed together, that’s been the problem all along. They all report to each other, there’s no independent agency — they report to the provost, and he’s a void.”
  • On February 16, she wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily Tar Heel in which she stated, “I want to make clear that, in my opinion, the Institutional Review Board acted in good faith when it put a halt to my research in January. I never intentionally misled anyone about the data I was collecting, but I understand that the IRB must comply with federal guidelines. I have never meant to impugn the professionalism of the IRB.” She did not, however, retract her earlier statement that the Provost is a “void.”
  • On February 24, I published “Truth and Literacy at UNC” on my blog. In that essay, I explained that although some questions on the research application at UNC are indeed confusing, the questions about names and academics records are very clear. I challenged Willingham to release her completed research application publicly. She has still not responded.
  • On March 25, Willingham appeared on HBO’s Real Sports, showing the interviewer a de-identified datasheet of athletes’ test scores and GPAs.
  • On March 26, UNC student journalist Delia D’Ambra posted a YouTube video in which she interviews Willingham. In the video, Willingham criticizes Chancellor Folt for ignoring Willingham’s request to meet, and she says, “I think the administration would do us all a favor to say, ‘Let’s all get together and sit around this table and let’s stay until we really get the truth on the table.’”
  • Also on March 26, Professor Smith posted a blog entry on Willingham’s website, and in the comments he wrote, “The key moral issue (to me) is whether Mary acted in good faith in filling out the [research] application, and whether she believed she was doing things properly. There is no doubt in my mind, none, that she acted ethically. She may have made an inadvertent error, but she is the most ethical person I know.”

In summary, the IRB stopped Willingham’s research because her application did not indicate she would have the names and records of the athletes, but Willingham claimed she needed the names and records for the purpose of the study and accused the Provost of conspiring against her, and Professor Smith defended her, saying she may have made just an “inadvertent error” on the application.

Unfortunately, a statement from Professor Smith in one of his previous emails to me makes clear there was nothing inadvertent about their research.

The Truth Withheld

In my exchange with Professor Smith back in September, months before Willingham started broadcasting her research to media outlets, I raised concerns about whether Willingham had obtained proper consent to do research on the athletes in the study. None of the athletes with whom I spoke remembered giving consent, and the records we have from the psychologist do not include any copies of consent forms. Professor Smith’s response to my concern tells us everything we need to know about how he and Wilingham understood her research. The following is an exact quote from his email:

The data she has collected is secondary data. According to IRB protocols, such data requires no explicit consent, since aggregated data generated by the operations of the institution are not considered data from “human subjects.” This is a non-issue. You have decided to make it one, for some reason, but it is a non-issue.

Smith’s statement could not have been any clearer. The key term is secondary data. That means, as Smith states, aggregated data generated by the university. That means he and Willingham knew all along she was not supposed to collect data herself and have the names of the athletes. Smith and Willingham knew the research was supposed to be only a secondary data analysis. They knew she was not supposed to access the athletes’ federally protected academic records without the athletes’ consent.

Smith knew the truth, but when Frank Baumgartner accused the Provost of stonewalling, Smith remained silent.

Smith knew the truth, but when Willingham accused the Provost of conspiring against her, Smith remained silent.

Most importantly, Smith knew the truth, but when Willingham collected athletes’ grades without their consent and shared the aggregate grades publicly, Smith remained silent.

Smith’s silence, I believe, was as dishonest as Willingham’s statements.

Clearly Stated Questions

(Ironically, I had forgotten about his comments regarding the research and would not have remembered them had he not so smugly insisted in his last email to me that he would be happy to have our emails publicized, prompting me to re-read them.)

Again, as I explained in my essay “Truth and Literacy at UNC,” the gravity of Willingham’s actions is due to the fact that athletes’ federally protected academic records were accessed. Had her research simply involved asking athletes in an anonymous survey what their grades were, the issue would not be nearly as problematic. Unfortunately, the research was not so benign.

Furthermore, as I also explained in my essay, the research application is very clear about identified data and student records. The application does contain some confusing questions that one could inadvertently answer incorrectly, but the questions about identifiers and records are not confusing at all. Moreover, the application asks an open-ended question about the purpose of the study. Willingham’s explanation of the purpose should have indicated what she told The Daily Tar Heel: “The study included how they were doing in school, their GPA.

Did Willingham actually indicate that the purpose of her study included “how they were doing in school, their GPA”?

Did she mark in the application the checkbox indicating she would have the athletes’ names?

Did she mark the checkbox indicating she would be accessing their student records?

Of course, the IRB's decision to halt her research suggests the answer to all those questions is no, and Smith’s email to me confirms that. Yet Willingham confidently proclaimed otherwise, and Smith remained silent while she did.


Before I continue, I want to disclose what I stated in my email exchange with Smith, to demonstrate none of it contradicts anything I have stated publicly. In that exchange—again, one he initiated by attacking my credibility—I recounted some experiences and opinions I am sure he believes he can hold over me. However, he cannot hold anything over me when I acknowledge those experiences and opinions myself.

One experience I recounted in my exchange with Smith was a meeting I had two years ago with a senior Arts & Sciences administrator after I was interviewed by The Chronicle of Higher Education. I wrote in my email that I was told I should not use the phrase “underprepared students” but instead use the phrase “students with special talents.” My point was that the preferred phrase seems like a euphemism preferred only to hide the fact that UNC has admitted underprepared students.

In my emails with Smith, I also shared my opinion that the faculty members on the sub-committee for admissions of “students with special talents” should take responsibility for some of the admissions recommendations they made over the years. I brought up this point because Smith has directed all his criticism at the athletics department and the academic support program, ignoring the fact that all of the academically underprepared athletes who have been admitted to UNC were admitted with the recommendation of his fellow faculty members on that sub-committee. Never have I denied UNC’s admissions for athletes needed to be improved prior to the new processes established this year.

Another experience I shared in my exchange was that of working with underprepared student-athletes with low reading and writing abilities—low for UNC. Of course, that is nothing new to readers of my blog. As I have explained extensively in previous posts, being underprepared for UNC—even significantly underprepared—is not the same as reading at an elementary level. UNC is a rigorous university, and many students whose reading and writing abilities are too low for UNC academics would undoubtedly be able to succeed at other, less rigorous universities.

Smith would also like me to acknowledge a Faculty Athletics meeting at which I presented on the learning services program I helped develop and oversee for underprepared student-athletes. For my presentation, I used PowerPoint slides, and on one of the slides I accidentally left a sarcastic comment between my colleague and me. The comment was an expression of our frustration with admissions. Specifically, the comment addressed the fact that in past years too many underprepared student-athletes had been admitted who required the support of a learning specialist all four years of college.

A sentiment I expressed more than once in my exchange with Smith was the fear some of my current and former colleagues and I in academic support previously had about speaking out. Some of us, while our office still reported to Arts & Sciences, were concerned about the consequences of responding to the press. In one of my emails, I stated that we were told not to talk with the media. I cannot now remember any specific instance when we were explicitly prohibited from responding to media inquiries, but I do remember feeling highly discouraged from speaking out. My discouragement felt especially pronounced last April after an article about Syracuse’s academic support program was published, in which the program’s staff members and university administrators were quoted extensively, explaining their practices and providing context for student-athletes’ academic experiences. The contrast between that article and the articles about UNC’s academic support program over the past three years was stark and disheartening. Why did we not have the opportunity to explain our practices and provide context for our student-athletes’ academic experiences the way Syracuse did?

Fortunately, during Fall Semester, after our program had moved to the Provost’s Office a few months prior, we developed guidelines for responding to the media, and we have been assured we would be supported if we felt the need to speak publicly. That very welcomed message of support was what empowered me to begin speaking out on my blog, and I have indeed felt supported since doing so. That message of support is also another example of demonstrable improvements UNC has recently made to internal processes and to transparency. The new Chancellor and the new Provost (along with the Athletics Director and the Vice Provost for Admissions) are doing what is right, and I believe the academic support program’s move to the Provost’s office last summer was an excellent move.

Contrary to Smith’s allegations of cowardice and self-contradictory behavior, nothing I said in my exchange with him or at the Faculty Athletics Committee contradicts my statements elsewhere. I have never denied my critique of the admissions process prior to the new system established this year. As I explained in a recent blog post, my purpose in speaking out has never been to defend the university but rather to defend the dignity of the student-athletes and the integrity of my current and former colleagues. Admissions for athletes prior to this year needed to be improved, and I am glad it has been. However, Willingham’s claims are grossly exaggerated and unfair to both the student-athletes and the academic support staff alike.


In his latest email to me, Smith wrote, “All in all, however, what strikes me about the Bethel oeuvre, taken as a whole, is that your entire case against Mary [. . .] finally boils down to this: ‘[the athletes] really were not quite as weak as she claimed they were; at least I don't think so. Even though I wasn't there and never worked with most of those people.’ In the end, that's what you're saying. Wow, so powerful.”

As any honest reader of my blog can see, that is not what my entire case boils down to, and I find his obvious attempt to ridicule me pathetic.

My case against Willingham’s claims is that methodology matters, and her methodology was highly unsound. My case is that claiming that 70% of a large sample of UNC athletes read below a high school level is unfair and insulting when the real percentage is undoubtedly much lower. My case is that such a misrepresentation of the facts perpetuates the “dumb jock” stereotype that research has shown already potentially threatens minority male athletes’ academic success. My case is that one can criticize his institution’s past admissions processes without resorting to inflated statistics and embellished anecdotes. My case is that truth matters, and, unlike Smith and Willingham, I am not willing to forgo the truth in order to champion my cause.

Of course, Smith’s condescending summary of my argument is troubling for at least three other reasons, besides his blatantly mischaracterizing my case.

First, Willingham was the one who proclaimed, “My data is 100% correct.” Can we not hold her to the standard she set for herself?

Second, one of the basic axioms of our justice system is that the punishment should fit the crime. Willingham claimed 70% of her sample read below a high school level. Based on Willingham’s flawed methodology, I have no doubt the percentage is much lower. I have acknowledged that UNC failed in the past to balance academics and athletics, but my point has been that that failure was not as egregious as Smith and Willingham have alleged. Should the university not be judged according to the truth rather than according to Willingham’s inflated statistics?

Third, and related to the second point, Smith is the one who, last April, made the distinction between faculty and athletics departments based on faculty’s and athletics departments’ conflicting commitments: truth and winning, respectively. He trumpeted himself as a truth-seeker, and indeed the truth is the standard to which we should all be held. Or does he now disagree?

Smith's comments in a BuisnessWeek Videos segment on February 28 suggest he still purports to believe in truth and honesty. He appeared on the show to discuss Paul Barrett’s recent stories about Willingham and UNC athletics. During the interview, Smith suggested UNC demonstrate it is an honorable university by voluntarily vacating its 2005 and 2009 men’s basketball championships.

After dishonestly withholding the truth about Willingham's and his research on UNC athletes, will Smith demonstrate he is an honorable faculty member by voluntarily vacating his Distinguished Professorship?

I would never seriously suggest he do so. All I ask is that he stop the silent dishonesty and start telling the truth: he and Willingham knew her study was only supposed to be a secondary data analysis and that she was not supposed to have the names of the athletes and access the athletes’ grades.

Anyone familiar with Smith's oeuvre knows he is likely to respond with some “deconstruction” of my argument, but his deconstructions are pretentious and will only obfuscate the issues at hand. Until he or Willingham publicly releases the completed research application showing she indicated she would have the athletes’ names and access their academic records, and until Willingham cites research supporting her methodology for determining grade equivalents, nothing Smith and Willingham say should be believed or taken seriously.

I am not an apologist for UNC athletics or for college sports in general. In fact, I believe much of the current criticism of college sports is legitimate, and I unequivocally believe college athletes should have the right to advocate for themselves. However, I am not willing, as Smith and Willingham (and some of the journalists supporting them) have done, to use exaggerated and false claims to bring about reform. Reform achieved at the expense of our integrity is surely not reform that will last.