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Questions Asked; Folt Spins/Attacks

A thoughtful column on Wednesday by Nicole Comparato, editor-in-chief of the Daily Tar Heel, asks Chancellor Folt to speak to allegations recently brought forward by researcher and student tutor Mary Willingham regarding quasi-illiteracy among many UNC athletes:

We have a chancellor who vowed to move UNC past scandal with her acceptance of this job, who has said very few words since the article’s publication. Willingham says she has not heard from Carol Folt at all, which is deeply troubling considering this is Folt’s first big test as a leader…

Now it’s Folt’s time to prove her leadership. The honeymoon is over, and UNC needs its chancellor, but her public silence is disappointing. And Jim Dean, though he has been quite responsive as a provost, should not be the visible leader through this rough patch.

As one of just 11 chancellors in the University’s history, Folt’s job is bigger than managing the PR machine…

The objective now should be to prevent another incoming class from an unpredictable four years of scandal and accusations like we had, which should be a priority for Folt in order to move away from the negative headlines and back to the good ones.

Every second a national network spends rehashing UNC’s old scandals takes away from this University’s integrity. But we need our leaders to assure us that they are committed to restoring it. Chancellor Folt, the ball is in your court. And we don’t have the time for another turnover.

And answer Carol did yesterday, with a mixture of denial, obfuscation, and empty reassurances:

I take these claims very seriously, but we have been unable to reconcile these claims with either our own facts or with those data currently being cited as the source for the claims. Moreover, the data presented in the media do not match up with those data gathered by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. For example, only two of the 321 student-athletes admitted in 2012 and 2013 fell below the SAT and ACT levels that were cited in a recent CNN report as the threshold for reading levels for first-year students. And those two students are in good academic standing. Nevertheless, we are investigating all the claims being made and, if they are found to have merit, I will take all appropriate actions. We also will do our best to correct assertions we believe are not based in fact.

However, the Raleigh News & Observer was not fooled; it found fault with Folt:

Willingham, the former learning specialist for the athletes’ tutoring program, said she stands by her work that focused on athletes who were given special testing before they began their first year in school. She noted that Folt only cited data that is outside of Willingham’s period of study between 2004 and 2012.

“She’s not responding to my data,” said Willingham, who works for UNC in a different job away from athletes.

The students admitted in 2012 and 2013 came a year after the university learned through The News & Observer’s reporting that the African studies department was creating lecture-style classes that never met. The classes required a term paper that typically received high grades, and likely was never read. That scandal, which reaches back into the mid-1990s, is now acknowledged as the worst in the university’s history.

Folt, in her statement, said that seven investigations have delved into the scandal. She said despite those investigations and the dozens of reforms produced, “this continues to be a painful journey for the Carolina community, and I will not ignore the lessons learned.”…

The scandal is shaping up to be the first major test in Folt’s first year on the job. She said she still has many questions, “and I am seeking to understand the complete picture of what additional work we need to do in this area.”

Over the course of the week, faculty members and media outlets have called for more transparency on the academic scandal. Folt indicated a willingness, but did not provide specifics.

In Hanover, we saw this kind of two-faced PR management by Folt on any number of questions. She might get away with such a strategy up north, but at UNC Carol is facing bigger issues and a tough crowd. As usual, she is tap dancing as fast as she can, but will she succeed with her usual stonewalling?

It could be that the countdown to meltdown has already begun.

Addendum: CNN has been all over the evolving UNC story. It filed this report late yesterday:

Folt’s letter said: “Only two of the 321 student-athletes admitted in 2012 and 2013 fell below the SAT and ACT levels that were cited in a recent CNN report as the threshold for reading levels for first-year students. And those two students are in good academic standing.”

But a larger analysis of SAT and ACT entrance exam scores released to CNN show the situation is not so bright.

UNC data shows that, since 2004, the university admitted 34 players to play in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball who scored below a 400 on the SAT verbal test, or below a 16 on the ACT reading and English tests.

That’s 10% of those athletes admitted under “special talents” to play football or basketball. Willingham reported 8% of student-athletes playing in revenue sports were reading below a third-grade level as part of a research project that was university approved.

However, Willingham’s research included other factors, and used a smaller sample size.
On Thursday, CNN talked to a psychologist who administered the academic achievement test that Willingham used in her research, and that psychologist backed up Willingham’s findings.

The psychologist, who asked not to be identified, said a spreadsheet with the results of the tests was given to UNC academic support center staff each year the testing was done.

“You have to do really badly on that test to get a low score,” the psychologist also said, noting that some student-athletes scored even lower on later evaluations.

“I have the utmost confidence in Mary’s integrity and she’s trying to do the right thing, and always has,” the psychologist said.

Addendum: In the story’s latest development, Willingham’s work has been suspended, according to the News & Observer:

UNC-Chapel Hill announced Thursday evening that its research review board had suspended whistle-blower Mary Willingham’s work on the literacy levels of university athletes.

The university said that its institutional review board, which governs research projects, found that Willingham had released data that could potentially identify research subjects.

It would seem that the good Chancellor has shifted gears from stonewalling to blame-the-messenger. Mary Willingham, a whistleblower who has exposed a serious problem, deserves better.

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