UNC Scandal

To settle suit, UNC pays Willingham $335,000

UNC-Chapel Hill is paying former learning specialist Mary Willingham $335,000 to settle her claim she had been retaliated against for blowing the whistle on the longest-running academic fraud in NCAA history.

Willingham’s attorney, Heydt Philbeck, provided a copy of the signed settlement to The News & Observer late Monday, hours after a federal court document showed the case had been settled and closed.

“We believe the settlement is in the best interest of the university and allows us to move forward and fully focus on other important issues,” UNC spokesman Rick White said in a statement.

Willingham said once legal fees are deducted from the $335,000, she will have the equivalent of three years’ salary. She made roughly $60,000 a year.

“It gets me out far enough that I will be able to get a job,” Willingham said.

Willingham had sought her job back, but that was not part of the settlement.

Willingham sued UNC last year, claiming the university created a hostile work environment for her in retaliation for her blowing the whistle on academic fraud. She had worked as a learning specialist for the athletes for seven years until 2010, when she took a similar position at UNC outside of the athletes’ tutoring program.

She had told The News & Observer in August 2011 about counselors in the athletes’ tutoring program steering them to lecture-style classes that never met in the African studies department. The athletes were told to write papers that drew high grades regardless of the quality of the work.

The N&O after began inquiring about the classes and their connections to athletics, prompting investigations that eventually found a “paper class” scheme that dated back to 1993.

In early 2014, Willingham drew a firestorm with initial research that she said showed a majority of roughly 180 athletes tested for learning disabilities over several years could not read at the high school level.

UNC officials flatly disputed her results and research methods, and hired three experts who said the data she provided could not produce such shocking results. Willingham said the experts were not provided all the information she used to reach her findings, which had not been vetted by a more experienced researcher on her team.