Willingham Files Lawsuit Against UNC

Mary Willingham, the former learning specialist whose controversial research suggested a number of Carolina athletes were ill-prepared for academic success in college, claims in a lawsuit filed this week that she was subjected to a hostile work environment.

Mary Willingham.

Mary Willingham

Willingham filed the lawsuit Monday in Wake County Superior Court, accusing her former employer of retaliating against her for publicizing a long-running academic fraud designed to keep athletes eligible to play in the University’s revenue sports. Her suit seeks at least $10,000 in damages plus court costs and attorneys’ fees and either reinstatement to her former position or the payment of lost earnings, whichever she would choose.

The lawsuit marks a departure from Willingham’s previous statements that she would resign after the semester that ended in May because of the cumulative pressure she had attracted since going public with her findings. Willingham filed a grievance with the University some months ago over changes to her job that she claimed were an effort to make her quit.

Joel Curran ’86, the University’s vice chancellor of communications and public affairs, issued a statement Monday saying officials were aware of the suit.

“We respect the right of any current and former employee to speak out on important University and national issues,” the statement reads. “We believe the facts will demonstrate that Ms. Willingham was treated fairly and appropriately while she was employed at Carolina.”

Willingham made a splash in January when she asserted in a CNN story that she met many athletes whose reading and writing skills were substandard for college work. She said her research showed that 60 percent of 183 athletes between 2004 and 2012 who were considered upon admission to Carolina to be at risk for academic failure read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels and that 8 percent to 10 percent read below a third-grade level.

Her findings drew swift denunciations from University officials, who for more than two years had been looking into so-called “paper classes” that had been taught in the former department of African and Afro-American studies and enrolled a disproportionately high number of athletes.

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, according to her complaint. Those included 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 athletic 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.”

Willingham’s complaint chronicles her time spent working at UNC, a tenure that had drawn plaudits from her superiors until she started talking about the controversy engulfing collegiate athletics.

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, the complaint says that Willingham had grown disillusioned for 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, Willingham became the assistant director for the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, which assisted all Carolina students on an academic basis, according to the complaint. 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 September 2010, an attorney from UNC’s Office of University Counsel interviewed Willingham for two and a half hours, according to the complaint. Willingham told the attorney about the improper help athletes received but she never heard back, the complaint states; she eventually concluded that the University was “not interested in hearing the truth.”

In 2011, Willingham started talking to Dan Kane, a reporter for The News & Observer, about the suspect classes that kept athletes eligible to compete, according to the complaint. When Willingham told her supervisor about her conversations with the reporter, her supervisor said, “I can’t stop you — you have a constitutional right to tell anyone anything you please,” according to the complaint.

In October the following year, Willingham started blogging about her experiences working with athletes. The next month, some of her statements to the reporter appeared in The N&O. During the interview, Willingham said 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’s complaint says she met and communicated with top University officials about her research findings regarding athletes’ lack of reading skills before going public on CNN. The network news story thrust Willingham into the national spotlight, prompting University officials to denounce her research. Coach Roy Williams ’72 disputed that one of his former players was unable to read, and Provost James Dean called her findings “virtually meaningless.”

In April, Willingham announced she would be resigning at the end of the spring semester after meeting with Chancellor Carol L. Folt. Willingham later said she had pondered leaving for some time because of the pressure she was under since going public.

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