CHAPEL HILL: UNC provost calls whistle-blower claims 'travesty' - WRBL

UNC provost calls whistle-blower claims 'a travesty'

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Mary Willingham Mary Willingham
Key points from Friday's Faculty Council meeting. Key points from Friday's Faculty Council meeting.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -

The provost at the University of North Carolina on Friday called research that calls into question the academic abilities of UNC athletes "a travesty" at a dramatic faculty meeting Friday, while UNC faculty members asked pointed questions about whether the school had  stonewalled when it came to being forthright about its problems.

James Dean, the school's executive vice chancellor and provost, gave a report to the Faculty Council Friday afternoon at the council's regular meeting.

Chancellor Carol Folt also attended the meeting and took questions from the faculty.

Dean gave a breakdown of UNC's research after Carolina's Mary Willingham challenged the academic abilities of UNC athletes in the primary revenue sports. Willingham's conclusions were at the heart of a CNN report.

But Willingham did not back down on her criticism and continued her attack on the UNC athletic culture in an email to WNCN.

On Thursday, UNC announced it had notified Willingham she can't continue to use data with information that could identify the subjects until she applies to the university's review board that governs human research.

The research board is the Institutional Review Board, commonly called the IRB, and such boards govern research at college campuses.

"My co-investigators and I will re-apply for IRB status," Willingham told WNCN Friday.

However, Willingham had sharp words for UNC. In an email to WNCN, she questioned whether Carolina has accepted the problems in its major sports teams.

"The gap in academic preparedness between profit sport athletes and students at NCAA DI [Division I] institutions perpetuates educational inequality," Willingham wrote.

"Until we acknowledge the problem, and fix it, many of our athletes, specifically men's basketball and football players, are getting nothing in exchange for their special talents."

In a CNN story last week, Willingham said her research of 183 football or basketball players at UNC from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level.

Read a brief filed by Willingham which includes numbers about student athletes

Carolina disputed Willingham's numbers Thursday in news releases and again Friday in the important Faculty Council. Because many faculty have tenure, they can ask tough questions of top administrators.

Dean, the provost, said to the faculty,"You've had these students in class. Using this data set to say that our students can't read is a travesty and unworthy of this university and these claims have been unfair to the students, unfair the admissions officers, unfair to the university."

Dean's comments drew applause as he concluded his remarks.

See UNC's report to the Faculty Council

But there was some support for Willingham in the room. One faculty member said Willingham took her role with athletes seriously and wasn't out to get them.

"The suggestion that she is picking on athletes or denigrating athletes is just absurd," the faculty member said.

And another faculty member rose to say UNC's defense "seems like a stonewall." That has been one persistent criticism of UNC during the scandal, that the school continued to say the problems weren't widespread while media outlets continued to reveal more problems.

Another faculty member said he was impressed by the presentation and found it "very convincing." But he warned against the temptation to "refute all of it," that is, assume all the problems didn't exist.

"There has been a kind of denial here," he said. "Today, I don't see denial. But it's been easy to see the pattern of denial."

Dean, in response, said UNC did believe he needed to "correct the record" when necessary but said the senior leaders at Carolina understood there was much work to be done.

Also on Friday, Christy Lambden, the UNC student body president, continued the school's defense on Friday with a lengthy statement.

Lambden defended the school's admissions policies and said "the evidence put forward by Willingham and CNN is misleading and misrepresents the standard of student-athletes at Carolina."

Lambden said Willingham "had a limited data set" and her "data was never sent for peer review."

Lambden also blasted the CNN report on Carolina.

"CNN did not do their due diligence and failed to request any data from Carolina. By not portraying the whole picture, CNN misrepresented the entire student-athlete population enrolled at Carolina from 2004 to the present day."

Lambden said that from student government's perspective, "no questions should be raised about Carolina's academic integrity.

"We fully support the administration in their ongoing examination of the relationship
between academics and athletics at Carolina, and we are convinced that the procedures and
protocols that have been put in place are exactly the right measures to ensure that student-athletes at Carolina continue to succeed academically," Lambden said.

Lambden said he wanted to speak out because he represents the students "and I think that's a voice that's been lacking in this discussion so far.

"I think the student population is frustrated with the way that this story has continued," he said.

Folt, the new chancellor who came from Dartmouth, is scheduled to meet with the UNC Faculty Council Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. at a regularly scheduled meeting.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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