US Senate panel cancels testimony from UNC whistle blower Willingham

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 10, 2014 

— Mary Willingham, the former learning specialist who blew the whistle on the academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill, was told on Friday that she would not be testifying before a U.S. Senate committee looking into the welfare of NCAA athletes.

In an email, Willingham said she had been contacted earlier about being on the witness list for the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing titled “Promoting The Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes.”

“They asked me to do it, told me what they wanted from me and then called me back” at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Willingham said, to let her know that Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, decides who would be on the panel and that she had not been included.

CBSSports.com was the first to report that Willingham would not be on a roster of witnesses that included former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who is leading a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA over revenue gained from the use of athletes’ names and images, as well as Houston Texans running back Arian Foster and Ramogi Huma, the leader of an organization seeking to unionize college athletes.

Willingham told The N&O in 2011 that the tutoring program for athletes was steering them to lecture-style classes in the African studies department that did not meet. Instead, the athletes were told to write a paper and turn it in at the end of the class. She said the athletes typically received high grades.

Subsequent investigations by the university confirmed the “paper” classes but also found that nonathletes had also enrolled in them and received the same high grades. As a result, the university said the scandal was not an NCAA matter.

In January, Willingham was part of a CNN report in which she contended that, of 183 North Carolina football and basketball players she had researched since 2005, 60 percent read between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, and between 8 percent and 10 percent read below the third-grade level.

Since then, UNC has raised questions about her data and she resigned after a meeting with the chancellor.

A witness list for the Senate hearing was not available late last week.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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