Mary Willingham, the former UNC-Chapel Hill reading specialist who contends the university values the eligibility of its student athletes more than academic integrity, claims in a lawsuit filed this week that she was demoted for speaking out.
The 25-page complaint, filed Monday in Wake County Superior Court, contends that Willingham was subjected to a hostile work environment for almost three years after informing her supervisor that she had been talking with reporter Dan Kane at The News & Observer about academic fraud and phony classes offered to athletes.
Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications and public affairs, issued a statement late Tuesday.
“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is aware of the lawsuit filed by former employee Mary Willingham,” Curran said. “We respect the right of any current or former employee to speak out on important university and national issues. We believe the facts will demonstrate that Ms. Willingham was treated fairly and appropriately while she was employed at Carolina.”
This week, the NCAA reopened its investigation of academic irregularities at UNC. The announcement came several weeks after former UNC basketball player Rashad McCants told ESPN on “Outside the Lines” that he had received top grades in classes that did not require attendance and handed in papers that tutors wrote for him.
Willingham has maintained for years that many of the athletes she worked with at UNC came to college unequipped academically to do college-level work.
In 2003, she began her work on the Chapel Hill campus as an academic adviser to student athletes, primarily football players at first and basketball players a short time later.
By 2008, according to the lawsuit, Willingham became so “disillusioned by what she had been experiencing first-hand as a learning specialist” that she began to look for other employment within the areas of academic support.
In January 2010, Willingham became assistant director for the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling and began reporting directly to Harold Woodard, associate dean and director of the center.
In June of 2010, the NCAA opened an investigation into the possibility of improper benefits being provided to UNC football players. That led to questions about improper academic help for some of the players and an athletic and academic scandal bloomed.
Willingham, according to her lawsuit, became more and more frustrated after speaking to administrators, lawyers and investigators looking into the scandals.
In September 2010, according to Willingham’s suit, an attorney from the UNC-CH general counsel and the faculty athletic chair at the time interviewed her for 2-1/2 hours.
“During this meeting,” the complaint states, Willingham “reported in good faith to UNC-CH’s counsel about her personal knowledge of various times when UNC-CH’s athletes would receive improper, unethical, illegal and/or corrupt treatment from UNC-CH faculty and/or staff.”
The lawsuit said Willingham never heard back from the university lawyers after that meeting.
In the summer of 2011, according to the lawsuit, Willingham established and maintained regular contact with Dan Kane, a staff writer at The News & Observer who has investigated and chronicled the scandal.
Soon after her initial contact with Kane, the lawsuit states, Willingham told Woodard, her supervisor, of the conversations. His response was “something to the effect of ‘I can’t stop you — you have a constitutional right to tell anyone anything you please,’” the lawsuit states.
Willingham contends that Woodard began retaliating against her after that but does not specify the actions.
Willingham began posting to a blog in October 2012, and the same month she met with former Gov. Jim Martin, who led one of many investigations into the allegations of wrongdoing.
In the lawsuit, Willingham contends the university spent $500,000 over 24 months to “wage a public relations campaign” against her and “against the truth” of what she asserted.
Willingham is seeking damages and an opportunity to return to her job if she wants.
Willingham resigned in April after a meeting with the chancellor and amid public criticism by top UNC officials about her research into the reading levels of student athletes.
Willingham participated in a CNN report in early January on low reading scores for college athletes.
The university has disputed Willingham’s research on a selected group of at-risk student athletes, contending that she misinterpreted key test data. She has stood by her unpublished work and argued that UNC has willfully distorted her findings.
Staff writer Jay Price contributed to this report.