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.

On January 8, Willingham had seized the national media's attention when she was featured in a CNN story, falsely claiming that approximately 70% of her sample of UNC athletes, mostly football and men's basketball players, read below a high school level. Five days after the CNN story aired, she filed a declaration in the O'Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit, arguing that Division I football and men's basketball players do not receive a "real education." In addition to her standard claims about athletes' being "steered" to "fake" classes, she also reported the aggregate grades of an unexplained "cohort" of 17 football players on the 2013 team.

Willingham, who had not worked with athletes since January 2010, would have had no right to access current football players' academic records unless she had obtained approval from the IRB as well as consent from the athletes themselves. However, she had obtained neither. Consequently, the IRB informed her, shortly after she filed her declaration, that her continued use of her data would violate federal laws unless she re-applied for IRB approval.

Scoffing at the IRB's statement, Willingham claimed she had properly informed them about the nature of her study and that it had always "included how [the athletes] were doing in school, their GPA.” Two weeks later, she even accused the university of conspiring against her: "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.” Smith, her most ardent supporter and a co-investigator for her study, never contested Willingham's false claim that the nature of her study involved collecting primary data.

Yet, as he had revealed in an email to me several months prior, he knew all along she was only supposed to have collected secondary data. On September 6, 2013, Smith wrote the following:

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.

Despite Smith's clear awareness that Willingham had publicly misrepresented the intended purpose of her study, following the IRB's statement, he allowed the media to depict the dispute between the university and Willingham as one between a corrupt institution and a virtuous reformer. The day I exposed Smith's silent dishonesty, he sent me the following threatening email, titled "well, well, well":

So Mr. Bethel, I see you've thrown down the gauntlet. In a most irresponsible, reckless, inflammatory way--one that ensures that I will receive torrents of hate mail. All of it unjustified. This little maneuver shows once again your perverse attachment to personal attack.
I am busy with teaching today and for much of the week. I don't know when you'll get the response you deserve. But it's coming. And we'll see, at the end of it all, who is really the most regretful. How dare you.

My first response was via email. I wrote,

Jay, unless you can show the research application, nothing you say is relevant. So I'll tell you this: If you publish the research application, and it includes all three of the indicators below, then I will retract my post and issue a public apology.
The application should indicate all three of the following: 
1) That one of the purposes of the research was to track athletes' grades, "their GPA," as Willingham said.
2) That she indicated she would have athletes' names.
3) That she indicated she would be accessing their grades.
You can quote me out of context all you want, but unless you can show an appropriately completed research application, you were indeed dishonest, and nothing you say is relevant.

Later that day, I also published the email exchange on my blog, and I exhorted readers, "Do not send Smith and Willingham hate mail. I will condemn all threats and hate mail that come to my attention."

Smith's hubris compelled him to continue his attack with the simple reply, "Have you lost your mind?"

To which I countered,

You, a tenured employee, threaten me, a non-tenured employee, and then you ask me whether I have lost my mind? This must be what it feels like to be a bullied whistleblower. 
Let's agree not to email each other anymore. If you want to threaten me, you can call me. 
I genuinely hope you don't start receiving the harassing email, tweets, and comments I've been receiving. I was about to say that I've been receiving that harassment because of my exercising my academic freedom to criticize Willingham's research, but then I remembered I don't have the same academic freedom you have because I'm not a tenured employee. Must be nice.

Our exchange concluded when he replied, "Agreed. Now hurry up and go post this."

Last weekend, four months after that email exchange, I learned that Smith had emailed the Provost to report that I was demonstrating symptoms of mental instability. A public records release of emails between Smith and the Provost included an email Smith sent on April 4 that reads as follows:

Dear Provost Dean:
I think you should be aware of the recent activities of your learning specialist Bradley Bethel. It started with this and quickly escalated:

I'm a free speech purist, and his claims about me will be easily refuted. That's not the reason for the email. If you read this post and his follow-ups carefully, and note his "debating" tactics, you may come to feel--as I do--that there are reasons to worry about this man's stability. As the person ultimately in charge of academic support, and ultimately responsible for his actions, you need to be aware that I and others have openly expressed concerns about his mental health. I would not want him feeling harassed, but my feeling is that experts here at the University should at least be consulted.

Jay Smith

The Provost, demonstrating his characteristic poise, sent the following reply: 

Professor Smith - thank you for your message and your concern. I have read the material at the link you sent me. I don't see any evidence of mental health concerns in this material, but perhaps I have missed it. If you could be more specific that would be helpful. Also, if you have other evidence or reason for concern, please do share this with me.
Jim Dean

Keep in mind that Smith, as a professor, is responsible for teaching and exemplifying critical thinking and civil debate. Yet, when I exposed his dishonesty and revealed the shoddiness of his position, he resorted to a threat of retaliation and then to an accusation of mental instability.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) maintains a "Statement on Professional Ethics," in which professors are admonished to practice intellectual honesty when making truth claims. Stated in full, the first of the AAUP's five ethical principles reads,

Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty. Although professors may follow subsidiary interests, these interests must never seriously hamper or compromise their freedom of inquiry.

Throughout Smith's public campaign against UNC athletics, he has violated the principle of intellectual honesty, proffering arguments designed to appear coherent but which, he is intelligent enough to know, are contingent on inaccurate and illogical premises. In "Silent Dishonesty," I facetiously suggested that Smith voluntarily vacate his Distinguished Professor title, but I am beginning to believe he actually should.

Update: On August 21, the Daily Tar Heel published the following letter to the editor:

Mental health on college campuses is a serious concern, and we should take all reasonable measures to ensure that students, staff, and faculty with mental illnesses feel comfortable seeking help at UNC. We work against this goal when we add to the stigma of these conditions. 
Professor Jay Smith and Learning Specialist Bradley Bethel have been active, public participants in our campus’ mostly healthy debate over the relationship between academics and athletics at Carolina. 
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, an email has come to light that was sent from Smith to Provost James Dean Jr. regarding Bethel. The email was sent after Bethel published a blog posting criticizing Smith for remaining silent as issues with Mary Willingham’s research were discovered. 
In its aftermath, Smith emailed Dean to suggest that the blog posting and Bethel’s follow-up comments raised concerns about Bethel’s “stability” and that experts at the University should be consulted about his mental health. Dean did not “see any evidence of mental health concerns,” per his reply to Dr. Smith. 
A host of mental health advocacy organization have published best practices for campus mental health. These best practices often include the recommendation to alert mental health resources on campus of concerning behavior from others. 
They generally do not recommend that an employee’s supervisors be alerted first, as this runs the risk of creating a hostile work environment for the employee. Also, references to “mental stability” are vague and unproductive, and for people with mental illnesses, they often carry the same sort of stigma that the term “retarded” does for people with developmental disabilities. 
I recommend avoiding use of these terms. 
As a new school year begins, I wish everyone a healthy campus experience and I hope that we all do our part to reduce the stigma around mental illnesses so that all members of our community feel welcome at UNC. 
Go Heels, 
Patrick Link, MD, MPH, MSHS Psychiatrist  
UNC ‘98 UNC School of Medicine ‘03