CHAPEL HILL: Willingham files civil suit against UNC - WHLT 22 Connecting the Pine Belt

Willingham lawsuit accuses UNC of unethical, corrupt behavior

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -

Former UNC academic specialist Mary Willingham has filed a civil suit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she confirmed Tuesday morning.

Willingham resigned from her job at Carolina at the end of the spring semester.

In the lawsuit,she said she became troubled by "widespread, unethical, and even corrupt academic assistance that she had personally witnessed various student-athletes receiving from university officials and staff."

She also said her boss "began retaliating" against her after he knew she was giving information to The News & Observer. In the lawsuit, Willingham asks for her position back, that she be compensated at three times her actual damages of an estimated $30,000, and that she have a jury trial.

The lawsuit also claims:

  • Willingham offered to meet with UNC basketball coach Roy Williams about her assertions that some players read at elementary school levels, but he responded it was "not his place" to meet with her.
  • Willingham's job responsibilities were to change for the 2014-15 academic year, which would include a demotion in rank and title and move her from advising undergraduate students to graduate students. She would also have to put any requests for time off in writing 30 days in advance, the lawsuit states.
  • Willingham has suffered $10,000 in damages.
  • UNC "essentially punished [Willingham] for having reported the truth," which would violate North Carolina law.

Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications and public affairs at UNC, said the school "is aware of the lawsuit filed by former employee Mary Willingham. 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."

In response to Curran's statement that Willingham was treated "fairly and appropriately," Willingham's attorney Heydt Philbeck said it will be up to a neutral judge or jury to decide how the university treated Willingham.

"We respectively disagree and we disagree for the reasons presented in the complaint," Philbeck said.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said she had not reviewed the lawsuit but said she could not comment because it is an "open case."

"As much as I know you’d like for me to comment on it, we are still in the middle of an appeals process for that. Much of that began before I came here as well. So, I can’t comment on an open case," Folt said. "There will be some point when we'll be able to talk about it, but I respect the right of Mary or any employee to question those issues and we'll follow-through as appropriate."

Philbeck said the university has 30 days to respond to the complaint. The university could choose to ask the court for a 30-day extension to respond.

Earlier this year, Willingham told CNN that her research of 183 football or basketball players at UNC from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level.

After the story came out, UNC Provost James Dean called Willingham's research "a travesty" at one of the university’s faculty meetings.

During that meeting, Dean gave a breakdown of UNC's research after Willingham challenged the academic abilities of Tar Heel athletes in the primary revenue sports.

But Willingham did not back down on her criticism and continued her attack on the Carolina athletics culture.

UNC told Willingham she could not continue to use data with information that could identify the subjects until she applies to the university's review board that governs human research. The research board is the Institutional Review Board, commonly called the IRB, and such boards govern research at college campuses.

At a meeting earlier this year, the Board of Trustees heard from key people with the university at the Carolina Inn about athletics and academics.

UNC faculty chair Jan Boxill told the trustees the university is still spending a great deal of time investigating potential shortfalls with student athletes.

"I think we were all hoping that in 2014 that we would bring a resolution to move forward in our continuing efforts to correct the academic abuses and shortfalls in our academic processes for our student athletes," Boxill said.

Provost Dean said university research shows the data Willingham used was not meant to evaluate reading levels.

But Willingham, in a response after the meeting, told WNCN, "The way Provost Dean explained my data analysis is 100 percent incorrect. I have done work with this data set for the last six years and have a good understanding of what I am doing."

Willingham said she occasionally seeks help from experts in other fields, but that the university never called them to understand the data.

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