UNC Pays Willingham $335,000 to Settle Suit; No Reinstatement

Mary Willingham
Photo by Harry Lynch / The News & Observer

The University has paid Mary Willingham $335,000 to settle a lawsuit she filed against it in June.

Willingham, whose claims that some athletes arrived at Carolina unprepared for academics contributed to investigations into the athletics-academics scandal, did not win her attempt to get her job back. She said she was satisfied with the settlement, which still requires a judge’s signature to close the case.

“I’m fine with it,” she said. “I think the University and Chancellor [Carol L.] Folt were as accommodating as possible.” She added that although she was not reinstated to work at UNC, “maybe I will someday.”

UNC released a statement that read: “The University has reached a settlement with Mrs. Willingham that resolves all of the outstanding legal issues in the case. We appreciate the efforts of the mediator to help us achieve a successful and timely conclusion to the mediation. We believe the settlement is in the best interest of the University and allows us to move forward and fully focus on other important issues.”

UNC hired Willingham in October 2003 as a part-time learning specialist in the athletics department. A little more than year later, she was promoted to full time and began working extensively with athletes playing in revenue sports, including men’s basketball and football.

By the 2008-09 academic year, Willingham said in her lawsuit, she had grown disillusioned as a result of what she perceived as “the widespread inappropriate, unethical, and even corrupt academic assistance that she had personally witnessed various student-athletes receiving from university officials and staff.”

In January 2010, she became the assistant director for the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, which assisted all Carolina students with academic issues. In this role, Willingham was responsible for training tutors and overseeing, evaluating and managing the center’s programs.

That summer, the NCAA launched a probe into UNC’s athletics program that uncovered academic misconduct involving an undergraduate student tutor and some players on the football team. That investigation eventually resulted in sanctions against the University and sparked several spinoff inquiries into possible academic fraud.

In 2011, Willingham started talking to Dan Kane, a reporter for The News & Observer, about academically suspect classes that kept athletes eligible to compete.

In October of the following year, Willingham started blogging about her experiences working with athletes, and The N&O started publishing her claims that athletes who were unable to perform college-level work would register for no-show classes and that plagiarism was tolerated by faculty and/or staff.

Willingham said she met and communicated with top University officials about her research findings regarding athletes’ lack of reading skills before going public in late 2013 on CNN.

Her research, gathered during her studies for a master’s degree from UNC-Greensboro while she worked at Chapel Hill, drew swift denunciations from University officials.

The University announced that Willingham had lost her research privileges at least temporarily because she had violated policies on protection of individual students’ names.

The University is bound by federal regulations to require researchers who perform human subjects research to obtain prior approval from its Institutional Review Board.

In granting Willingham initial approval for her research, the IRB had concluded that Willingham’s work was not human subjects research, meaning that the researcher could not identify individual subjects and that any codes that could allow linkage to identifiers were securely behind a firewall outside the possession of the researcher. The IRB then rescinded that determination “after it came to the IRB’s attention that the employee’s dataset contained identifiers,” UNC said in a statement. This occurred after media reports made it clear to UNC officials that Willingham had to have known individual students’ information.

Willingham did not reveal names publicly. However, going public is immaterial — under Willingham’s agreement with the IRB, she was not supposed to see names.

The IRB said that Willingham would have to submit a new application and that any further use of her data without approval would be a violation.

Willingham said she was following IRB rules because as the primary investigator she never released names to anyone until Dean asked her to give them to him.

Outside experts hired by the University to analyze Willingham’s dataset suggested her research was flawed. Willingham countered that the experts lacked access to all of her data and engaged in a “directed review” of her work.

Several months after the CNN story, Willingham learned about changes to her job duties, including a demotion in rank and title; weekly meetings with her supervisor; additional job duties that would require extra training; and work hours that were strictly enforced during the afternoons, which she said prevented her from attending faculty and athletics reform meetings. She also was told she could no longer advise undergraduates and was required to move her office into a space “with poor work conditions.”

In April 2014, after meeting with Folt, Willingham announced she would be resigning at the end of the spring semester.

Willingham continues to work on a national level for reform in college athletics. A book she co-authored with UNC history professor Jay Smith was released in mid-March.

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