Threats Against Counselor Who Said College Athletes Struggle to Read

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A still image from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. (credit: CNN)

(CNN) — The death threats, Mary Willingham expected.

More shocking is that the University of North Carolina is now disavowing her research as a whistleblower — research that showed between 8% and 10% 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 also detailed Willingham’s research and linked to her full study online.

And purported e-mail 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 e-mails, 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 e-mail) 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.”


  • Pip

    Colleges do rather hate having their shortcomings exposed, just like the stereotypical dumb jocks in question hate having their ignorance exposed. Not that all athletes are stupid, just the ones who coast along on their physical talents for as long as it lasts. And as long as the $$$$$$$$ keep coming in, the situation will likely continue. Well done, Mary Willingham, for having the guts to tell the truth. Shame on the UNC for their cowardice.

  • Mark

    And it took guts to do the unpopular thing. What’s that saying? The popular thing isn’t always right, and the right thing isn’t always popular.

    People making threats against her shows their ignorance. They think being a 20 yr old reading third grade is ok if you can throw a ball. Sports in this country are far too over rated, and expensive (college/pro, tickets, etc)

  • save_humanity

    It’s the truth! I have these folk in my college class plagiarizing entire websites and they can read during a presentation. Can even pronounce the word “ask”

  • Deborah

    If you don’t like the message you don’t kill the messenger!! She did what is expected of her! And the dim wit’s make threats against her?? What she did was right How in Gods name can these “people” go to college and can’t read or write?

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