Mary Willingham resigned after the spring semester. But according to a lawsuit filed Monday in Wake County, she was demoted and the school retaliated against her after she raised concerns such as low reading levels for athletes and the existence of "paper classes" requiring only one research paper at semester's end -- which she says helped keep athletes eligible.
Willingham is seeking to be reinstated to her job and damages of at least $10,000. The lawsuit also names the University of North Carolina public system that oversees the Chapel Hill school as a defendant.
J. Heydt Philbeck, Willingham's Raleigh-based attorney, said school officials retaliated against her because she had "the courage ... to tell the truth both internally and externally about how some of the UNC-Chapel Hill athletes were being cheated essentially in the education that they were supposed to be receiving."
"It was troublesome for her and she let that be known," Philbeck said Tuesday evening. "It wasn't well received we contend by some officials at UNC-Chapel Hill."
Philbeck said the lawsuit also seeks to prevent further retaliation if she returns to the school.
In a statement, UNC vice chancellor of communications and public affairs Joel Curran said the school was aware of Willingham's lawsuit.
"We respect the right of any current or former employee to speak out on important university and national issues," Curran said. "We believe the facts will demonstrate that Ms. Willingham was treated fairly and appropriately while she was employed at Carolina."
Willingham was hired as a part-time learning specialist for athletes in October 2003 and to a full-time position in December 2004. She eventually "became disillusioned" by seeing "widespread" improper assistance and conduct before taking another position in 2010. She reported her concerns in a meeting that year with two school officials after the NCAA launched an investigation into the football program, but never heard back in response, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit states that problems began after she told her supervisor she had spoken with a reporter from The News and Observer of Raleigh in summer 2011. She also started a blog about her experiences the following year. Willingham was then demoted last summer, required to report to weekly meetings with her supervisor and given new duties requiring extra training among other job changes. She also had to move to an office with "poor work conditions" shared by a retired professor, according to the lawsuit.
Willingham complained about "hostile work conditions" and filed a grievance, but the school did not address her complaints, according to the lawsuit.
A whistleblower advocacy group, the Government Accountability Project, has sent letters to school chancellor Carol Folt and system president Thomas W. Ross in recent months questioning whether Willingham was mistreated or harassed. That included criticism from school provost James W. Dean Jr., after Willingham told CNN in January that the majority of football and basketball players she researched from 2004-12 read at below-grade levels.
The lawsuit states Willingham met with school officials in 2013 to discuss her research before going public. Three outside experts hired by the school later said Willingham's data did not support her literacy conclusions.
According to the lawsuit, the school spent about $500,000 over two years "to wage a public relations campaign" against Willingham and her claims of "improper, unethical, illegal and even corrupt treatment and services" for athletes.
The lawsuit was filed the same day UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said the NCAA is reopening its probe into academic misconduct because new information is available.
UNC Whistleblower Speaks
Bob Ley speaks with Mary Willingham, the whistleblower whose research into academic improprieties has the athletic department and administration at UNC under fire.