Jay Smith: That Infamous IRB Application


At long last, the public release of Mary Willingham’s IRB application of 2008 makes it possible to comment directly on its alleged failures. (Until the form’s release this week it was unclear to Willingham and me whether the IRB still retained the original copy of the application. IRB officials did not bring the application to the meeting we scheduled with them in January; Willingham herself had only the penultimate draft in her possession.) As a late add-on as co-investigator for the study (I joined the research “team” in 2013), I want to clarify my role in the whole application process. But the main purpose of this post is to refute the wild accusations that have flowed from Bradley Bethel’s deliriously myopic reading of the entire application episode.

To recap the basics: In the early 2000’s the UNC athletic department contracted with a Ph.D. psychologist, Lyn Johnson, to conduct learning disability tests on incoming athletes during the second summer session of the school year. In 2004 Mary Willingham was tasked with organizing the testing because of her background and training as a learning specialist. She was also directly interested in the evaluation process because she worked closely with many of the athletes targeted for the testing-specifically, the ‘committee case’ athletes, academically at risk, who required a special faculty clearance to gain admission to the University. Willingham and Johnson began collecting the data that the University had instructed them to collect and soon came to the realization that the pool of data they were compiling could be valuable for research purposes. Hence their decision to seek the IRB’s approval to use the data in a study of the incidence of learning disabilities among athletes. Willingham had no experience in IRB-related research, so she leaned on Johnson, the faculty chair of the IRB (Lawrence Rosenfeld), and a colleague in Learning Disability services for advice in filling out the form. Willingham and Johnson answered two critical questions about “coded data” in a way that has aroused much controversy. To the question, ‘Are the data coded?’ they answered ‘yes.’ In response to the question whether the researcher would have ‘access to a key that deciphers the code,’ thus enabling linkage to identifying information, they answered ‘no.’

To Bethel and his partners in defamation, this constitutes the ‘ah ha!’ moment they have long salivated for. Proof at last that Willingham is a liar and a cheat! She deliberately misrepresented her research and deceived the IRB! Her dastardly ethics have been unveiled!

The actual record, alas, fails to conform to the fantasy visions of Mr. Bethel and company. The fact of the matter is that Johnson and Willingham answered the “coded data” questions correctly. The data was indeed coded, and Johnson-who tested the students and subsequently carried out the bulk of the analysis-never had access to the key that would have allowed her to identify the people she tested. She followed protocol to the letter. Willingham kept the names of the students because she believed-and still believes to this day-that it was her duty to retain access to the initial screening results of athletes that she, as the athletic department’s chief learning specialist, needed to remediate. She never sought to hide from anyone her retention of identifiable information. Why would she hide it? She was doing her job and using the test scores to help determine what form and degree of help athletes X, Y, and Z would need in order to improve their classroom performance. Although she and Johnson of course conferred on the analysis Johnson was performing, Willingham never revealed names to her research partner. She never once divulged identifiable information to anyone-until January 13, 2014, when Provost James Dean coerced her into doing so.

We have long known, of course, that the IRB halted the Willingham/Johnson study when it learned that Willingham had in fact retained identifiable data. It would appear that the IRB did not know in 2008 that Willingham understood her job as a learning specialist to be distinct from her role as Johnson’s research partner. Clearly there was a misunderstanding; on that key question no new information has been added by the disclosure of the original research application.

The only thing “new” to emerge this past week is the claim of the Willingham haters that the IRB form confirms their darkest suspicions-that Willingham is unethical, dishonest, and therefore entirely untrustworthy. But this claim is sheer nonsense. It continues a pattern, most evident on Bethel’s blog but apparent in many corners of Tar Heel land, of ignoring innocent explanations for Willingham’s behavior in order to impute to her the most duplicitous motives imaginable. Did Willingham make an error in filing the IRB application? Reasonable people may certainly conclude that she did, though the error was an understandable one in light of her job duties in 2008 and given her own inexperience with IRB protocols. (Emails show that she repeatedly went back to Rosenfeld with questions during the initial application process. She also scrupulously added new co-investigators in subsequent years when she wanted to give them access to her findings; she wanted that access to be perfectly legitimate and above board. Is this the behavior one would expect of someone plotting to pull the wool over the eyes of the IRB?)

Misunderstandings and miscommunications seem to have led to an important error in the original application. But was there anything unethical about that error? Does the error signify willful deceitfulness and deep-rooted dishonesty? Only the most biased observers-only those with an agenda to push-would prefer that conclusion to the more innocent and plausible ones available. Everything about Willingham’s behavior in the years since she went public with her concerns about ASPSA corruption in 2012 points to her guilelessness. Willingham practically shouted from the rooftops to get the attention of UNC administrators in 2012 and 2013-hoping that they would look at her data and confront the issues contained therein. She has confessed to her participation in an eligibility system that funneled students toward easy and fraudulent courses. She has offered to meet with any students or faculty members who have publicly expressed concerns or doubts about her claims. (Most invitations to meet with her went unacknowledged, including by several skeptical members of Faculty Council.) Her free and open manner with the media reflects her determination to broadcast the truth as she sees it, and although the occasional ill-considered word has earned her fierce criticism, she has never wavered on any important point of testimony. (More on this later.) In a Daily Tar Heel article of January 16, Willingham was quoted asking “how would I do the research if I didn’t have the names?” Are these the words of a person who even suspected that it was improper to hold on to identifying information? Obviously not. Had she been aware of her own need to secure permission to keep the names of the athletes tested, she could have applied to the IRB for a waiver that might have granted such permission. Other researchers engaged in ongoing work on the UNC campus have been granted such waivers; there is every reason to suppose that Willingham would have been treated similarly by the IRB. But she made no such request because she was unaware of the need.

An open-minded person of good conscience might still wonder whether lines were blurred in troubling ways in Willingham’s office. Was she acting appropriately in dealing with athletes both as students and as research subjects? The question is a fair one, but insofar as this issue bears on Willingham’s motivations and the ethics behind them, it is important to emphasize that the goal of helping students was always foremost in Willingham’s mind. Her dedication to the well-being of the athletes she helped was recognized by everyone. Her students certainly never doubted it. If roles got confused, if lines were crossed, this reflected her own inexperience with research studies and her determination to do everything she could-private tutorials in the afternoon, classroom work in the evening, research on the side-to improve outcomes for the athletes in her charge.

Mary Willingham may have made a mistake. But she is not, and has never been, an unethical person. The only ethical violation for which she might be held responsible-her knowing involvement in educational malpractice as a member of the ASPSA-she is now dedicating her life to correcting. My own experience tells me that UNC peer tutor Megan Flynn got it right when she told the Daily Tar Heel, in a January article, that Willingham “is one of the most fair and honest University employees I have known.”

But Bradley Bethel, who has never had a real conversation with Willingham and who arrived at UNC at least eighteen months after Willingham had left the employ of the UNC athletics department, confidently pontificates on the meaning of her IRB application, the nature of her work experience, and the content of her character. By now, of course, no one can be surprised by the conclusions Bethel reaches about much of anything. Every word, every deed, confirms for him the essential wickedness of Mary Willingham (and of the friends who support her.) His interpretation of the IRB form-he released a statement saying that “Willingham has been deceitful about the nature of her research” -alleges profound ethical shortcomings and contributes to the tapestry he has been busy weaving for several months. In his zeal to produce that discrediting tapestry, he has repeatedly engaged in overstatement, exaggeration, hyperbole and outright “fabrication” (the accusation he so often throws at Willingham.) For example:

-Bethel wants to make much of the fact that Willingham’s IRB application was for a study of the incidence of learning disabilities, not reading levels. He suggests that this in itself demonstrates Willingham’s basic dishonesty. The assertion itself is nonsensical. The initial screening for learning disabilities necessarily involves the testing of reading and writing ability; these are organically related. This means that the preliminary assessments in the Willingham/Johnson learning disability study provided precisely the kind of data Willingham needed to make claims about reading levels. That the study involved reading assessments was implied from the outset.

-Bethel claims that Willingham keeps “changing her story” about the measures used to arrive at her conclusions regarding reading levels. “When her findings were first reported by CNN,” Bethel has written, “Willingham claimed they were based only on results from the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA).” Only later, when she wanted to dispute her critics, did she claim that she had used other measures in addition to the SATA. This statement about the January 7 CNN report is, unfortunately, a bald-faced lie. Willingham never specified in her conversation with CNN’s Sara Ganim which measures she had used to arrive at her estimates. On this subject, in fact, Willingham has been unvarying. Bethel does not know that Willingham possesses a recording of her conversation with Provost James Dean on January 13, 2014. In that recording Willingham states in unequivocal terms that she used “all the tests” in addition to her own “personal experience with the athletes” to arrive at her reading level assessments. In that recording she also advised the Provost that there were two things he needed to do in order to understand the scores and how they had been interpreted: he needed to contact Lyn Johnson, and he needed to consult the learning disabilities scores housed in the learning disabilities office; the Provost did neither of those things. Instead he chose to focus on SATA reading vocabulary scores and what they did or did not mean. He had his hired experts do the same, giving them only the SATA vocabulary scores even though he had access to everything else Willingham had used. Bethel was free to follow the Provost’s lead in adopting an inexplicably narrow focus in analyzing the Willingham data; he was not free to fabricate claims about how she formed her interpretations of that data. Nor did he have the right to level a baseless accusation about changing stories.

-Bethel has claimed that Willingham’s anecdotes about her experiences in ASPSA are “embellished.” He said in an audio interview with WCHL, for example, that Willingham “claimed that she worked with 500 student-athletes,” which he considers a ridiculously inflated number. He provided no reference to his source on the 500 claim, though it is true that Willingham has said on several occasions that she worked with “hundreds” of athletes in her seven years in the ASPSA. Bethel apparently does not know-how could he? he has never talked with Willingham one-on-one-that in addition to her case load of a few dozen students each year (which by itself puts the aggregate figure somewhere between 150 and 200), she also ran a “supplemental instruction” (SI) program-one that she devised-that involved intensive content-specific tutoring for a range of UNC undergraduate courses. She worked with many students in SI in addition to those who were assigned to her for her personal case load. There is no doubt at all that Willingham worked with hundreds of athletes in her time at ASPSA. The number may well have approached 500 (though it appears that she has never used that number herself.) Yet Bethel, consumed by his desire to denounce, took an especially petty and off-the-mark stab at undermining her credibility.

-Bethel has also claimed that I, as a “co-conspirator” of Willingham’s (a word he used on the Adam Gold and Joe Ovies show last week), have allowed my commitment to NCAA reform to overcome my scruples. He asserted in one of his longer and more offensive blog posts that I had been systematically and silently “dishonest about the nature of Willingham’s research. His chief basis for this claim was his dark interpretation of an email in which I announced to him that “the data [Willingham] has collected is secondary data.” This statement, Bethel asserted, proved my own complicity in Willingham’s nefarious schemes. “Smith’s statement could not have been any clearer. The key term is secondary data. That means data without names attached. That means he and Willingham knew all along she was not supposed to have the names of the athletes.” No, Mr. Bethel, no. First, the words “secondary data” do not necessarily “mean,” as he claims, that the data comes “without names attached.” The term secondary technically refers to the manner in which the data is generated, not the data’s identifiability. Indeed, Bethel had no basis to assume from the content of this email that I “knew all along” that anything was amiss. After all, I had been added to the study as co-investigator only a few months before I wrote my email, and then only because Willingham wanted me to have appropriate access to her data as needed. Of course I had had no role at all in the drafting of the IRB application. From my email, Bethel could assume that I believed secondary data could be accessed without the explicit consent of the athletes. He would also have been free to state, as I indicated in my email, that I believed (perhaps wrongly) that “aggregated data generated by the operations of the institution are not considered data from ‘human subjects.'” But there is no evidence in that email-none whatsoever-that I intentionally engaged in any dishonest or unethical activity. Bethel, in this instance as in so many others, ignored the obligations of fairness. He failed to contact me to confirm the meaning of what I communicated to him, and he simply denied that there were multiple ways to interpret my words. Drawn to a cartoonish vision of what UNC’s critics must be up to, he appears to have been incapable of acknowledging that I may merely have been wrong about something. In his fevered imagination, I had to be diabolically wrong. The result has been a pathetic caricature of my well-established professional integrity.

Such is the nature of the most vocal opponent of Mary Willingham.

There is plenty of room to debate the meaning of the Willingham data. The issues are complex, and the interpretive thicket is dense. If Bethel and others want to continue to fixate on the data (only one of the many issues that Willingham has raised) they are obviously free to do so. But it is well past time to drop the efforts at character assassination. They are unbecoming. They are unwarranted. They are not worthy of UNC-Chapel Hill. They have contributed decisively to the degradation of campus discourse.

Mary Willingham and I have consistently pursued the same three goals: 1) to improve UNC-Chapel Hill; 2) to do everything in our power to make the institution fully accountable for its past mistakes; 3) to eliminate the educational abuses that have afflicted the experiences of far too many athletes at UNC and across the country. The ferocious attacks on our motives, our character, and our commitment to UNC and its athletes need to be recognized for what they are: desperate or deluded attempts to change the subject.

It is time for the UNC community to focus single-mindedly on what’s important in the athletic arena: the educations delivered to scholarship athletes in the profit sports of football and basketball. Before he went on the warpath against the person whose whistleblowing he so resents, even Bradley Bethel acknowledged the nature of the problem we confront. He runs a remedial program that enrolls scores of athletes each year. The purpose of the program is to “increase” athletes’ ability to work with college-level vocabulary and to write college-level texts. When asked at a Faculty Athletics Committee meeting in 2013 whether some of those athletes would still struggle to do college-level work even after going through that remedial program, he answered unambiguously: “Yes.”

We at UNC, and well-intentioned people across the country, have a great deal of work to do.

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