CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The reading specialist who blew the whistle on an academic scandal at the University of North Carolina sued the university Monday, saying she was retaliated against after speaking out.
Mary Willingham quit her job in May after she was demoted, and she’s now suing to get her original job back.
UNC has been under scrutiny since 2011, when it was revealed that it had hundreds of classes in the Afro-American studies program that required no attendance and just a single paper. The issue received national attention after CNN highlighted literacy problems at UNC. In one CNN report, Willingham said the so-called “paper classes” were well known by the athletic support staff as easy classes for athletes who needed to stay eligible, and that the papers were often plagiarized.
Willingham said she worked with athletes for several years during the time when UNC had the bogus classes. The university admitted to the irregular classes, but denied the issue was anything more than the actions of one rogue professor.
That professor, Julius Nyang’oro, was indicted in December on a fraud charge. Orange County District Attorney JIm Woodall said he’s considering dropping that charge because Nyang’oro is cooperating.
Willingham said that more people knew about the fake classes, and that athletic support staff funneled athletes into the classes to keep eligible the players who couldn’t otherwise keep up with rigorous UNC classwork.
After speaking to the local newspaper, the News and Observer in 2013, she was demoted and given extra work, her lawsuit says. Then, she says, university officials verbally attacked her in 2014 when CNN featured her in a story about the literacy rates of college athletes nationwide.
She has said she felt university officials unfairly attacked her character after she revealed research on a selection of athletes who were reading at elementary school levels.
A whistle-blower group came to her defense earlier this year, saying the university should launch an investigation into the public harassment of Willingham by UNC officials.
In May, she announced she was leaving her job because of the hostile work environment, but said she loved working with students and hoped to be able to return.
“It will crush me to not be able to come to work here every day,” she said in March. “I don’t really look forward to that day at all.”
“The 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.”
The press she generated caused UNC to launch a new investigation into academic fraud. That investigation is underway and being conducted by former federal prosecutor Ken Wainstein. He recently announced that he has acquired 1.5 million e-mails and documents, talked to 30 athletic support staff, and gotten valuable information from others. He also is looking at transcripts going back to the 1980s, something no other UNC investigation had done.
Wainstein also interviewed WIllingham and Nyang’oro, which the NCAA did not do when it first looked at what happened.
Wainstein shared his information with the NCAA and this week the NCAA announced it was reopening its investigation.
“There is no doubt in my mind that NCAA gave a gift to UNC by not investigating this obvious fraud,” said Oklahoma University professor Gerald Gurney. He worked in athletic support for years and has become a critic of the NCAA. He’s currently researching academic fraud at many institutions, including UNC.
“UNC is the mother of all academic fraud violations,” Gurney said. “I have no doubt that the scale of the North Carolina case constitutes the most significant academic fraud case in the NCAA. Theres no doubt in my mind about cooperation of friendly faculty and the cover-up and the excuses of this kind of behavior that has gone on in the university. … It’s eggregious.
“It’s quite likely that if it is shown that this is a long-term systematic scheme on the part of the university that UNC will need to vacate wins,” Gurney said.