UNC whistle-blower resigns after meeting with chancellor

dkane@newsobserver.comApril 21, 2014 

— Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist for athletes who exposed a long-standing academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill, is resigning at the end of the semester.

Willingham made the decision after an hourlong, closed-door meeting with UNC Chancellor Carol Folt on Monday. Willingham has been an adviser and instructor since leaving the athletes’ tutoring program four years ago.

She confirmed her resignation in a short email to The News & Observer but said she could not provide details until she posts grades for her students and talks to her attorneys and the university’s human resources staff. In an interview last week, she said she had been weighing leaving the university after the semester ended.

Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC who is collaborating with Willingham on a book about the scandal, said she made the decision to resign after the meeting with Folt.

Smith said Folt spent much of the meeting berating Willingham for her comments about the scandal in recent months, which included interviews with national media that gave the scandal a wider audience and had become a major embarrassment for the university.

One dramatic exchange came when Willingham told CNN that a former basketball player struggled to read. That angered Coach Roy Williams, who challenged her claim and said she was disparaging the athletes. But he later turned down her offer to meet, saying it was not his place.

“There was no attempt to repair the relationship or to build a bridge,” Smith said of Willingham’s meeting with Folt on Monday. “Instead, from what I understand from Mary, it was just a tongue lashing, and I think that’s what kind of tipped the scales for Mary. When she realized that even Folt is beyond reach there isn’t much point in continuing.”

‘A productive meeting’

Folt could not be reached. Joel Curran, UNC’s vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, said the meeting was not antagonistic. He said Folt did not seek Willingham’s resignation or threaten to fire her.

“(Folt) said that she had what she felt was a productive meeting,” Curran said. “Mary had an opportunity to really share her points of view on anything that she wished, and the chancellor had her opportunity to share her points of view, but the chancellor did not characterize it as anything but a productive meeting.”

Curran said Willingham did not tell Folt she was resigning but did say she was taking some time off after the semester.

Willingham has a grievance with the university over her work environment, but Curran said that was not a subject of discussion.

Monday’s news drew dozens of tweets from UNC fans who saw her decision as evidence she wasn’t being truthful. Some of those who tweeted also had disputed there was ever a scandal to begin with.

Earlier this month, the university released reports from three outside experts challenging Willingham’s claims that the majority of a subset of athletes – many of them football and basketball players – who were tested for learning disabilities could not read at the high school level. The experts said Willingham had likely misread the test scores and had used a test that was not recommended for determining reading skill at the grade level.

Willingham had said the experts weren’t given access to all of the information she used to determine how well the athletes were reading. Her data involved roughly 180 athletes tested over an eight-year-period, but it was not vetted by an experienced co-investigator. Neither the full data set nor the underlying tests the athletes took have been made public.

No-show classes

In August 2011, Willingham told The N&O that the tutoring program for athletes was steering athletes to lecture-style classes that never met and only required a term paper at the end. Subsequent investigations have found more than 200 confirmed or suspected no-show classes within the African and Afro-American Studies department dating back to the mid-1990s. Athletes accounted for 45 percent of the enrollments; they make up about 5 percent of the undergraduate student body.

UNC officials have confirmed the classes were fraudulent and cheated students out of an education. But they have disputed Willingham’s claims that it was an athletic scandal because nonathletes were also enrolled and received the same typically high grades.

Records obtained by The N&O show counselors with the tutoring program steered athletes to no-show classes, including sending academically struggling freshmen football players to one that was listed in a course catalog as a senior seminar. A former counselor told a tutor in one email about the class: “Just remember, guys are in this class for a reason – at-risk, probation, struggling students – you are making headway … keep it positive and encouraging!”

The scandal has triggered dozens of reforms at the university, a felony fraud charge against Julius Nyang’oro, the former head of the African studies department, and an overhaul of the athletes’ tutoring program.

A newly formed investigation led by a former high-ranking U.S. Justice Department official, Kenneth Wainstein, is looking into the athletic connections to the fraud. Willingham met with Wainstein last week.

Willingham, 52, had worked for roughly seven years as a learning specialist to athletes before taking a position outside of the athletes’ tutoring program. She told The N&O she left the program because staff there were doing nothing about the cheating that she witnessed.

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando

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