For doing the right thing in speaking up on an academic-athletics scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham was vilified by boosters and became the object of scorn from some administrators.
She had been on the inside of the academic advising system for athletes, as a learning specialist, but she ultimately blew the whistle on a system she said guided athletes to classes that never met and where they wrote papers that got high grades regardless of their quality. It was all about keeping good players in major sports eligible, regardless of their academic difficulties. At one point, Willingham said she had research showing a large percentage of athletes tested as learning disabled.
The university came down hard on her and even hired three experts to discredit her research.
But now, nearly four years after Willingham spoke out, her criticisms have proved credible in many ways, and UNC-CH has agreed to settle a suit she brought claiming the university created a hostile environment for her after she dared to come forward. She will get $335,000, though she will not return to her job.
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So here’s another embarrassing chapter in this sorry saga that has cost the university millions of dollars in investigations and millions more in outside public relations help because UNC officials were under the ridiculous impression that their main problem was “managing” the crisis.
Willingham deserved more, including her job back and some profuse apologies. She did the courageous thing in daring to take on an athletics machine driven by millions of dollars in revenue and supported by boosters who unfortunately define the university based on how it does in men’s basketball and football. That attitude and the failure of administrators to pull the reins on the big-time sports programs helped lead UNC-Chapel Hill into a scandal of unprecedented magnitude. It’s not over yet, as the weak but embarrassed NCAA still is likely to issue punishment.