July 3, 2014

UNC Whistleblower Files Retaliation Lawsuit

UNCBy Marlene Koury

UNC is in the spotlight again after whistleblower Mary Willingham filed a retaliation lawsuit earlier this week against the university alleging she was demoted from her position as reading specialist for speaking out about academic fraud. She also alleges that UNC created a hostile work environment that ultimately drove her to leave her job in May. She filed her lawsuit on the same day that the NCAA announced that it was reopening its investigation into the scandal that has plagued UNC for the past few years.

UNC had been under scrutiny since 2011 when allegations surfaced that the university was holding hundreds of fake classes in the Afro-American studies program aimed at providing easy grades for athletes. Many of these classes required no attendance and a single paper for a passing grade. The university attempted to minimize and ultimately dismiss the scandal by framing it as one of a rogue professor who acted without the university’s knowledge or consent.

Ms. Willingham, however, painted a different picture. She revealed that knowledge of the fake classes at the heart of the scandal went well beyond Julius Nyang’oro, the professor who ran the Afro-American studies program and who was indicted in December on a fraud charge. She said that the athletic department was heavily involved in funneling certain athletes into classes they knew would require no work and would guarantee a passing grade just to keep the athletes eligible to play ball. She also reported that she worked with many athletes over several years who were reading at an elementary level. This did not sit well with UNC.

She says that in addition to demoting her and creating a hostile work environment, university officials verbally attacked her when CNN featured her in a story about the literacy rates of college athletes. She said that”[t]he train has left the station, people are talking about NCAA reform, and my university is not even in the station,” she said. “Instead they are attacking my character. That is not a leadership. Leaders focus on the issue, not on the people.”

Ms. Willingham’s attorney said school officials retaliated against her because she had “the courage … to tell the truth both internally and externally about how some of the UNC-Chapel Hill athletes were being cheated essentially in the education that they were supposed to be receiving.” She is seeking to be reinstated to her job and damages of at least $10,000.

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