Death threats, denial for woman who showed college athletes struggle to read

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Mary Willingham

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The death threats, Mary Willingham expected.

More shocking is that the University of North Carolina is now disavowing her research as a whistle-blower — research that showed between 8 percent and 10 percent of the school’s football and basketball players are reading below a third-grade level.

UNC issued a statement Wednesday night saying it did not believe Willingham’s account of a basketball player who could not read or write.

It went on: “University officials can’t comment on the other statistical claims mentioned in the story because they have not seen that data. University officials have asked for that data, but those requests have not been met.”

As well as questioning UNC many times about the story before publication, CNN has also detailed Willingham’s research.

And purported email exchanges obtained by CNN since August show that Willingham did share her findings at least twice — once with Executive Vice Provost James W. Dean Jr., and once with a member of a university committee on academics and athletics.

In addition, Willingham says her research on the students in the athletics programs that make money for the university was done based on screenings that the university itself paid for. And, she says, she has gotten permission from the university several times since 2008 to access those findings to continue her research.

“It’s already available to them,” Willingham said. “It’s in their system. … They have all the data and more. It belongs to them, and they paid a lot of money for it.”

Last year, when CNN asked UNC for comment on Willingham’s research, officials initially denied knowing about it, and said: “Such analysis is not part of her job duties at the university.”

Then, after being shown the emails, a spokesperson admitted that Willingham did share her findings and did have permission from the university to do the research in the first place, and said a meeting with Willingham was being scheduled.

Apart from Wednesday’s statement, UNC has not responded to CNN’s request for an explanation.

In the meantime, Willingham said she has heard from one branch of the university — the Department of Public Safety.

Since CNN’s report, Willingham said she’s gotten four death threats, and more than 30 other alarming messages.

“Not people who disagree, people who put in the subject or body (of the email) straight-up hate speech,” she said.

But there have also been notes of support from several other academic advisers around the country, Willingham says, and they make it worth the trouble.

“I’ve been getting more and more nice notes from high school teachers and literacy specialists across the country saying ‘Thank you.'”

A formal incident report hasn’t been made yet, but university police said: “We are looking into it and making effort to reach out and investigate the nature of the threats.”

“It’s really OK,” Willingham said of the threats, “because I’m telling the truth.”

 

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