Telling too much truth

“It’s really OK,” Mary Willingham, a researcher at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told CNN, “because I’m telling the truth.” This brave—or perhaps foolhardy—statement comes in response to death threats and a university disavowal of her findings that some NCAA athletes there read at a level well below that expected for college students.[1]

Willingham’s findings prompted a CNN investigation which found that many colleges push athletes all the way through to graduation. The story insinuates that some of these athletes graduate without actually having done the work required to earn an academic degree. “Those people who do that [break rules to enroll athletes and keep them enrolled so they can play] should be arrested,” Tom Hill, senior vice president for student affairs at Iowa State, said. “We should make it against the law. I know it happens. I’ve spent time in athletics.”[2]

Let me begin by acknowledging that I believe that both Mary Willingham and Tom Hill are likely telling the truth. Suspicions of athletes’ abilities in universities are longstanding, and CNN cites a number of earlier scandals.[3] I don’t doubt any of this. And I agree that these practices are abominable.

From a public relations perspective, UNC Chapel Hill is handling it poorly:

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has suspended the work of a researcher who has studied the literacy levels of college athletes, the News & Observer reported.

A CNN investigation this month cited work by the researcher, Mary Willingham, indicating that more than half of 183 Tar Heel athletes screened for their reading skills over an eight-year period could not read beyond an eighth-grade level.

The university said its institutional review board had found that Ms. Willingham had released data that could identify research subjects. The university has also disputed her findings and asked to see the underlying data. Ms. Willingham turned over the information to Chapel Hill’s provost, James W. Dean Jr. On Thursday the university published its own data questioning the findings of the CNN investigation.[4]

However, there is a piece of this that raises an ethical red flag that suggests the university is not entirely wrong to take the actions it has. The stories highlight the athletic program at a particular university. Further, the athletes in question are all NCAA athletes, hence a concern that the university has prioritized revenues from its participation in the NCAA over the athletes’ academic performance. This is a small, relatively identifiable group of people. As DeSantis put it in the Chronicle of Higher Education story quoted above, “more than half of 183 Tar Heel athletes,”[5] which means that if I look at a random Tar Heel athlete, I can guess with a better than 50 percent probability that that athlete is not prepared for college-level work.

Hence the university claim, also in DeSantis’ story, “that Ms. Willingham had released data that could identify research subjects.”[6] It is true that I cannot guess with 100 percent accuracy whether any particular Tar Heel athlete lacks reading proficiency, but that is not the ethical standard that’s called for.

The generally applicable standard is for anonymity. As a random stranger, or even as a well-educated one, I’m not supposed to even have decent grounds for suspicion that any particular athlete may have subpar reading skills, at least until I’ve had some personal interaction with that athlete, at which point my information comes not from Willingham but my own experience. The athletes in the UNC Chapel Hill program have, as a group, been tarred by these revelations. They are now all suspect. Even those who are proficient, even those like “a student whose low scores fell below the college literacy threshold but who graduated from Louisiana State University and is now in medical school.”[7]

Yes, Willingham is undoubtedly telling the truth. The trouble is that research ethics require that some truth be withheld in order to protect the subjects.

  1. [1]Sara Ganim, “Death threats and denial for woman who showed college athletes struggle to read,” CNN, January 14, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/09/us/ncaa-athletes-unc-response/
  2. [2]Sara Ganim, “CNN analysis: Some college athletes play like adults, read like 5th-graders,” CNN, January 8, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/07/us/ncaa-athletes-reading-scores/
  3. [3]Sara Ganim, “CNN analysis: Some college athletes play like adults, read like 5th-graders,” CNN, January 8, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/07/us/ncaa-athletes-reading-scores/
  4. [4]Nick DeSantis, “U. of North Carolina Suspends Researcher’s Work on Athletes’ Literacy,” University of North Carolina, January 17, 2014, http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/u-ofth-carolina-suspends-researchers-work-on-athletes-literacy/71561
  5. [5]Nick DeSantis, “U. of North Carolina Suspends Researcher’s Work on Athletes’ Literacy,” University of North Carolina, January 17, 2014, http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/u-ofth-carolina-suspends-researchers-work-on-athletes-literacy/71561
  6. [6]Nick DeSantis, “U. of North Carolina Suspends Researcher’s Work on Athletes’ Literacy,” University of North Carolina, January 17, 2014, http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/u-ofth-carolina-suspends-researchers-work-on-athletes-literacy/71561
  7. [7]Sara Ganim, “CNN analysis: Some college athletes play like adults, read like 5th-graders,” CNN, January 8, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/07/us/ncaa-athletes-reading-scores/

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