North Carolina

Whistle-blower says UNC created 'hostile' work environment

Posted July 1, 2014

— Mary Willingham, the whistle-blower academic adviser at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who claims that the university put player eligibility above academic integrity for years, has filed a civil suit against the school claiming that UNC retaliated against her for speaking about the academic performance of revenue-sport athletes.

In the lawsuit filed Monday, Willingham said she was informed in July 2013 that there would be several changes regarding the terms of her employment with the university, including a demoted rank and title and additional job duties that would require "extensive training."

Willingham's claims of retaliation also stated that she was told by the university that she would no longer be advising undergraduate students, but would only provide academic advising to graduate students who were seniors. Willingham was also forced to move her existing office to another space with working conditions her suit describes as "poor."

"Defendants (UNC) retaliated against Plantiff (Willingham) by providing her with a hostile work environment and purposefully failing or refusing to take prompt and effective remedial action to eradicate Plantiff's hostile work environment," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit claimed that Willingham has "incurred and sustained harms, losses and other damages" as a "direct and proximate result of UNC's acts of reprisal" against her. Willingham, who resigned her position at the end of the 2014 spring semester, is seeking damages in excess of $10,000 and court costs.

Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications and public affairs at UNC, said the university has not yet been served with the lawsuit. 

"We have no comment at this time," Curran said.

In a public appearance Tuesday afternoon, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt admitted that a series of investigations and allegations about the university's balance of academics and athletics have been challenges.

"We must take the opportunity to get things right," she said. "I didn’t come here thinking that everyday would not include issues of great consequence."

Folt said she respected the right of Willingham, or any employee, to question her work environment and that the university will follow through as appropriate.

Willingham jumped into the national spotlight in January, telling CNN that that 60 percent of the 183 athletes she studied at UNC read at a level more common in elementary school and up to 10 percent had the reading skills of a third grader.

Since that time, she has affiliated herself with student-athletes suing the NCAA and has advocated for NCAA reform.

"(I was) waiting for the university to do the right thing, and they still haven’t done the right thing,” Willingham said of UNC leaders.

She said Tuesday that she’d be in Washington, D.C., again Wednesday to urge lawmakers to take a closer look at the NCAA.

"The NCAA will need some serious help from our historians at UNC (so many years have passed)," Willingham said in a statement. "The NCAA cartel has lost credibility as a regulatory body. Meting out punishment should not be the purpose of any inquiry at this point. Instead, they should focus on how to use the UNC example to reform the entire system."

The NCAA notified UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday that it is reopening its 2011 investigation into academic irregularities at the school because, according to a statement by Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham, "additional people with information and others who were previously uncooperative might now be willing to speak with the enforcement staff."

A statement from the NCAA on Monday said its enforcement staff is exploring new information to ensure that "an exhaustive investigation is conducted based on all available information."

Dr. Julius Nyang'oro, who faces a fraud charge for collecting payment for a class that never met, is cooperating with both school and judicial investigations, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said last week. That cooperation has Woodall considering dropping the charge against Nyang'oro, the former head of the UNC Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Woodall said Nyang’oro has provided "invaluable information" to Ken Wainstein, the former federal prosecutor hired by the university in February to conduct the latest in a series of probes into the relationship between the Af-Am department and student-athletes. Cunningham said the university instructed Wainstein to share relevant information directly and confidentially with the NCAA.

"My colleague Joseph Jay and I have since held meetings with the Enforcement Staff and have briefed them on our findings to date," Wainstein said in a statement Tuesday. "We will continue to provide the NCAA with any relevant information that we learn during the remainder of our investigation."

Earlier this month, former UNC basketball player Rashad McCants, a member of the 2005 National Championship team, told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that he took classes that required nothing more than a paper and that tutors wrote papers for student-athletes. McCants said he rarely went to class yet remained eligible to play.

Head basketball coach Roy Williams denied McCants' claims that Williams knew about the classes, and McCants' 16 teammates signed a statement that said, "With conviction, each one of us is proud to say that we attended class and did our own academic work."

According to Willingham, so-called no-show classes were prevalent in the African and Afro-American Studies Department for more than two decades.

A 2012 investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin found problems in that department dating to the mid-1990s. The investigation revealed hundreds of bogus classes and altered and forged grades, but Martin determined that the discrepancies benefited non-athletes who took the classes as well as student-athletes.

Investigations into academic misconduct at North Carolina began in 2009 after allegations of improper benefits within the football program. The NCAA sanctioned the football program for both improper benefits and academic misconduct involving a tutor, leading to a postseason ban and the loss of 16 scholarships.


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  • Erik Sheahan Jul 4, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    I agree wholeheartedly. Whether other universities have issues or not, we know one exists at UNC and it HAS to be corrected; not swept under the carpet or handled with kid gloves. I am tired of the mess leaking out a little at a time like a slow flat tire. I find it deplorable that some athletes go to colleges or universities for the sole purpose of playing a sport and not for an education. Much as during my military career, I was a military person fight and serve my country...and then a specialist care provider, student athletes should be students first and athletes second. So, to get into college students MUST meet the entry requirements just as any other student. Find the problems, take corrective actions, and stop falling to a low level of education to compete in sports. We have had a high level of excellent student athletes, stick to that caliber of athletes.

  • uBnice Jul 4, 2014

    @heelsforever - Thank you for the LA Times article link.

    I grew up in SEC country where it goes without saying that if you are not cheating then you are not winning.

    I know that we paid little attention to the ACC because the SEC could never, ever point fingers at anyone. SEC schools like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee have had athletic/academic scandals that make UNC-CH and NCSU scandals look almost juvenile.

  • uBnice Jul 4, 2014

    View quoted thread

    So, NCSU has had their UNC-CH moment or we can say UNC-CH is having their NCSU moment.

    No school is clean in this dirty business.

    But of course, as a UNC-CH alumnus, this is *our* moment. I am hoping the powers that be at UNC-CH will make this right and keep it right. To me it matters not what any other school is doing or has done. Our leaders must take care of this UNC-CH affair.

  • heelsforever Jul 3, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Please re-read what I wrote. said nothing about State's NCAA issues under Valvano. what I did say was that the graduation rate was VERY low during his time there AND if one applied the same logic you guys are using today referring to the value of a UNC degreee, then we could say, NO ONE at NC State was graduating in the 80's.

    But since you brought it up, read this:

    That first sentence is pretty interesting, don't you think? Let me guess, guys like Dan Kane are writing nothing but the truth, but this piece from the LA Times is full of lies....

  • vile garbage Jul 3, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Dude they had a player that played collegiate basketball and claimed to be "amphibious". I'm sure he was making his own grades to stay eligible. #reality

  • redwolfone Jul 3, 2014

    View quoted thread

    The result of all the investigations in the 80s at State resulted in the NCAA finding that two players sold their extra shoes. WOW! No comparison to what UNC is doing here. Nice try cheaters!

  • turnergil1 Jul 3, 2014

    This the second post of this story. Post it about 3 more times just like other "tabloids". Now follow up with the same number of the experts' reports and someone may call you a news program.

  • Jim Thomas Jul 3, 2014
    user avatar

    $10,000?...I thought she was smarter than that. You sue for millions and then settle out of court for 6 figures.

  • vile garbage Jul 3, 2014

    The NCAA is the biggest joke of all. How can they discipline institutions when they are getting rich from the players, who get nothing from the NCAA? I agree with an interview I heard somewhere that the NCAA will be done in the next 5 years. It's time to pay these guys.

  • Chapel Hail Jul 3, 2014

    $10,000 for wrecking her career, are you kidding me? Willingham needs real legal consul, omg, did her attorney attend UNC? Please, for the love of sanity, she needs proper representation in this matter, call Joe Tocapina:




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