Mary Willingham and UNC-Chapel Hill have reached a tentative settlement over a lawsuit she filed last summer that contended the university retaliated against her for blowing the whistle on a long-standing academic fraud involving classes that never met.
Willingham said the settlement would provide her monetary compensation, but does not allow her to return to the university as she originally sought. She would not specify the amount of the compensation.
“I have a tentative settlement and I am waiting to hear if it’s been signed off on,” she said Tuesday.
Rick White, a UNC spokesman, confirmed the settlement, which he said was reached with the help of a mediator. He said the settlement “is pending review and final action by Judge (Terrence) Boyle,” a federal judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina.
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Willingham helped expose what experts say was the biggest academic fraud case in NCAA history when she told The News & Observer in August 2011 that the tutoring program for athletes was steering them to classes that they didn’t have to attend. They would just turn in a paper that typically drew a high grade.
Subsequent university-led or backed investigations confirmed the existence of the classes, all offered by two individuals in the African and Afro-American Studies department. But UNC officials denied there was an athletic motive behind them until the most recent investigation released in October.
That investigation, led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, found the bogus classes began in 1993, shortly after Julius Nyang’oro took over the AFAM department. Wainstein found Nyang’oro’s departmental manager, Debby Crowder, began creating the classes after hearing complaints from the tutoring program.
Roughly 3,100 students took the classes, half of them athletes.
Willingham drew harsh criticism from the university a year ago when she contended some of the athletes placed in the classes had sub-par reading skills. UNC hired experts to refute her research, but never delved into diagnostic tests and other materials that might show the athletes’ academic preparedness.