Mary Willingham’s name prompts some sports fans of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to frown and wince. She’s the whistleblower, after all, who brought academic fraud in the athletics program to bright light and for her trouble was inappropriately criticized by academic leaders. She left UNC. She sued. And now she and the university have reached a monetary settlement.
The reading specialist who at one time was part of the academic advising program at UNC-CH thought it a matter of conscience to speak up about the way athletes were guided to phony classes. Her revelations helped spark several investigations that cost millions of dollars and the hiring of high-dollar consultants by the university’s leaders, who mistakenly thought their main problem was public relations. It wasn’t. It was a full-blown academic scandal involving phony classes served up to athletes in order to keep them eligible.
It took a long time, before the university’s leaders fully acknowledged the seriousness of the problems.
Willingham did the university a favor, but not one it appreciated. And her settlement ought to include an apology from Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Jim Dean. In fact, Willingham should be rehired by the university as a consultant to oversee the reforms UNC-CH says are in place to prevent another scandal.
The problems Willingham helped reveal spoke to the very heart of the university’s integrity, and excuses from some fans that “everyone does it” were of little comfort. This, after all, was a university that long boasted of the “Carolina Way,” a reference to a supposedly shining example of a “clean” athletics program.
But clearly the lust for “big time” athletics got out of hand, and the academic/athletics scandal was one reflection of that. As it turned out, Mary Willingham was one who understood what the “Carolina Way” was supposed to mean.