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The Daily Tar Heel

Whistleblower protection agency criticizes UNC

Mary Willingham
Mary Willingham

The Government Accountability Project , a Washington, D.C.-based whistleblower protection organization, has recommended UNC investigate whether officials violated state law by harrassing her.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jim Dean said he does not think the investigation of Willingham’s research has done any harm.

“I find it very difficult to believe that trying to determine the truth of statements made about some of our student-athletes is anything other than what a university should be doing,” he said in an interview Monday.

In a letter addressed to Chancellor Carol Folt, group president Louis Clark referenced three times in which Dean discredited Willingham’s findings that 60 percent of 183 football and men’s basketball players from 2004 to 2012 read between a fourth- and eighth-grade level.

The accusations of harrassment made in the letter include a comment by Dean at a January Faculty Council meeting when he called Willingham’s data a “travesty.”

“Such inflammatory language used in a professional setting and providing no opportunity to respond is more of a smear campaign than an honest effort to address the issues raised,” Clark wrote in the letter.

Willingham said she has no further plans with the group but agrees with the letter.

“They don’t represent me, and I’m not part of their organization or anything like that,” she said in an interview Monday. “But I’m a citizen of the United States, so you know they’re a government accountability agency, and I’m a state employee.”

Vice Chancellor for Communications and Public Affairs Joel Curran replied to the letter by saying UNC would make an outside evaluation of Willingham’s research public to be as transparent as possible, but UNC has yet to name the person or group conducting that outside review. University spokeswoman Karen Moon could only say the review’s results will be available soon.

Clark said in an interview the most troubling response was Dean’s statement to Bloomberg Businessweek.

“I would say that it raises to the level of harassment and intimidation when the provost makes a comment that you lied to a national magazine,” he said.

Raleigh attorney Jack Nichols said state law guarantees the right of public employees to do their jobs without fear of intimidation or harassment.

“My experience is that most whistleblowers are treated harshly or terminated,” he said in an email.

Nichols could not comment on whether he thinks UNC harassed Willingham, but said transparency needs to improve.

Willingham is one of many whistleblowers who have shared their stories about improprieties related to athletics. Former Binghamton University professor Sally Dear-Healey said she received “undue pressure” to change’ grades from within and outside the athletic department.

She said she was eventually fired and has since taught at three other universities. Dear-Healey considers the treatment she received to be harassment.

“(Binghamton is) a school that really prides itself on its basketball and the ability to do well and the desire to have that name for the school,” she said. “So basically I think anything and everything that could be done to promote that and support that was done.”

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