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UNC athletics whistle-blower is leaving: ‘It’s been a hostile work environment’

Mary Willingham (CNN)

Mary Willingham (CNN)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A whistle-blower whose research on athletes’ literacy caused a firestorm of controversy at the University of North Carolina is leaving, she told CNN on Monday.

Mary Willingham said it’s her choice. She said she hasn’t yet turned in a final letter of resignation but simply informed her boss that she plans to leave before the end of the semester.

“It’s been a hostile work environment the entire year,” Willingham told CNN. “I stuck it out because I wanted to make good on promises to my students, but it has not been fun.”

UNC did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

Willingham was one of the original UNC staff members to publicly call attention to a system of “paper classes” at UNC. She told the The News & Observer newspaper in nearby Raleigh that athletes were pushed into classes that required very little work and no attendance.

This year, she told CNN that during the course of her research, she personally worked with athletes who were functionally illiterate. Her research was disavowed by the university.

UNC said three independent experts in adult literacy conducted a university-commissioned review of Willingham’s research and found flaws in her claims that some athletes were reading at elementary-school levels.

Willingham’s research, described to CNN in January, was based on a sampling of about 180 athletes with whom Willingham worked during an eight-year period.

Each had taken a 25-question reading vocabulary test on the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults. The aptitude test used by many universities to gauge the learning level of incoming students.

Last month, a Washington whistle-blower group wrote a letter to UNC, demanding the university apologize to Willingham and launch an investigation into the way it says she has been publicly smeared, most specifically by Provost Jim Dean. The group said it was possible that North Carolina whistle-blower laws were broken.

Since the CNN report aired, UNC has asked for a new investigation into the yearslong paper class scandal, in which student-athletes allegedly were taking classes in which the only requirement was completing a single paper.

Attorney Kenneth Wainstein, who had worked at the U.S. Justice Department for 19 years, is reviewing whether it was widely known among staff in athletics that players were sent to no-show classes where little or no work was required.

U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-California, is also demanding the NCAA address why UNC was never sanctioned.

Willingham told CNN that the paper classes were widely known and talked about in athletics, where she worked for seven years. She also said the paper classes were used to keep eligible some of the athletes who were reading at low levels.

16 comments

  • Chris

    What exactly does her complexion have to do with this story? An obvious butthurt UNC fan speaking there.

  • Finwearer

    …and obviously Mr. Grant either didn’t read the article or couldn’t comprehend it. It plainly states that she was leaving BEFORE the end of the semester. Hmmm…must be a UNC “graduate” that couldn’t pass the reading test. What sport did you play Mr. Grant?

  • AJ

    I witnessed similar athletes while in a NC state university that could not read and received their own grade curves separate from non-athletes. They would even have their own tests that were completely different and much easier that the regular tests. It really did not bother me, I figured all colleges involved in sports do this.

    • stinger90

      Anon, you sound like your typical UNC sidewalk fan that doesn’t know what he/she are talking about and didn’t go to school there. UNC is a great school with a black eye for covering up for their athletes.

      Sad thing, they will just get a slap on the wrist for showing lack of institutional control.

  • Daniel Rehmeyer

    After decades of similar stories, who exactly is surprised by an article like this. Our colleges have two types of students, academia and paid athletes. If you are given a free ride, free room and board, free tuition, and are NOT required to pass college courses, than you are a “paid’ athlete creating revenue for your institution.

    • Thomas Christopher

      And the worst part, Daniel, is that college athletes will so be paid more, thanks to a recent judge’s decision to let Northwestern University student athletes unionize and likely seek pay for their already-compensated play (scholarships, free food/board/travel, and other amenities).

  • Thomas Christopher

    Just another reason why college athletics needs to be scraped and the millions upon millions saved passed on to SERIOUS students, not there to train/prepare for professional sports, to enable their efforts toward a college education at drastically reduced costs in this world of unacceptable, sky-rocketing tuition and fees (and astronomical professor and administrator pay).

  • smokeydog

    This is a pretty common practice every where…..its a money thing, it has nothing to do with the education of the student. Butts in the seats how many butts in the seats, don’t you get it?

  • AthleticDummy

    This has been going on for years at UNC and I guarantee alot of other schools in this country. All athletes should be required to meet the same criteria to get into a college as any other person. Its downright discrimination when you bring a kid into college who cant even read a text book just because he has basketball or whatever talent. Do you people not realize half the UNC basketball team cannot hold an intelligent conversation?? Do you not listen to the interviews and all…they are the common one or two word answers by the highlight players there because they cant comprehend an intelligent answer….take PJ Hairston for example – dude was a thug who tried to make it big in a Carolina uniform but the best got to him and he went back to his ghetto ways….he is dumb as a box of rocks as like most of the UNC athletes!

    An investigation needs to be done which highlights all of this in college sports and ban all schools that cannot have student athletes pass an entrance exam to get into college.

  • B

    athleticdummy was always picked last in kickball. they are the common one or two word answers by the highlight players there because they cant comprehend an intelligent answer-say what. I guess you went to NC State and majored in English.

  • PeteandCarrie Hutchens

    UNC( Martin report) funded a study that revealed 200 fake classes and 500 grade changes….Is there another school that “funnel athletes into make-believe classes and stamp their transcripts with inflated grades?” As far as I know, it’s just UNC-CHeat

    Valued and loyal Employee exposes the mess and get death threats from walmart fans…. ” The Carolina Way “exposed !

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