Whistle-blower says UNC created 'hostile' work environment
Posted July 1, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — 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.