Former athletic learning specialist Mary Willingham said Monday that she will resign at the end of the semester after a meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt that lasted almost an hour.
Her decision is the latest in a developing story that began in January when CNN published the results of Willingham’s research, which she said found that 60 percent of a group of 183 student-athletes could only read between a fourth and eighth grade level.
Three researchers were hired by UNC to independently check her findings, ultimately saying in separate reports that her claims were invalid. The researchers said if they were to quantify a percentage, it would be around 6 percent rather than 60.
Willingham said she made the decision to resign entirely on her own after considering the ways she feels the University has treated her unfairly this year.
“I’ve been thinking all along about how hard it is to come to work every day, you know there’s always the whisper campaign around you, there’s people who are for you but they don’t want to say,” she said. “There’s people who are against you who don’t want to say.”
Folt said in an interview that the conversation between her and Willingham was cordial.
“I said, ‘It’s always hard when you end up with polarizing issues, it’s really difficult because then the complexity of the issues go away, because people start taking sides, and that’s never an easy thing for people,’” she said.
J oel Curran, vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, said the administration has received no formal notice of Willingham’s resignation.
He said the meeting was a chance for both women to air the concerns they had.
“The chancellor wanted to make sure Mary understood what all had taken place from a reform standpoint and make sure she is clear that the University has moved on many different areas with some meaningful reform,” he said.
“We’re moving on regardless of what her status is.”
Willingham said she is disappointed the University did not attempt to provide whistleblower protection.
“I have a grievence in play. I’ve been retaliated against,” she said. “My work environment is not pleasant. I’m treated differently than other employees in my unit and in the unit around me.”
She said her meeting with Folt confirmed her perception of how she differs from the administration.
“I think that we do agree that education is a priority,” Willingham said. “I think that we agree that students are unique. I think that we agree that students make choices, and in a way I’m not sure that we agree about big time sports.”
Willingham added she met for two hours with attorney Kenneth Wainstein, who was hired by UNC to conduct an independent investigation into past academic irregularities.
“He asked some questions, and I told him what I knew, and he didn’t seem to think that any of it was anything new, and I gave him all the documents I ever had from when I worked in athletics, and I want to make it clear that I did not have any transcripts, ” she said. “They were just documents that I had from working with students.”
Willingham said she is not sure when her official last day will be, but she will work with human resources and attorneys in figuring out the status of her grievance.
She said she plans to remain involved with athlete advocacy groups and will continue to live in Chapel Hill.
And after all that’s happened, she does not look at the University in a negative light.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with coming here, earning a degree here or playing a sport here,” she said.
“We have some little bumps in the road, some little potholes that need to be worked out.”