“There was nobody to go to, no one knew the policies, no one reached out to me and no one asked me if they could help me — they ignored me, treating me differently than they did before I went public with the information,” she said. “No one wanted to hear the truth.”
Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said this culture is not unique to UNC.
“It’s important that administrators in all positions develop an appreciation for those who have the courage to speak up in unpopular ways and not reflexively act to silence or punish them,” Shibley said.
“UNC should act to put robust due process protections in place for whistleblowers and other dissenters so that people can begin to trust that their rights will be respected.”
Willingham said the University violated her First Amendment rights and her whistleblower rights, which are defined in the North Carolina Whistleblower Act, before she left the University this spring.
“The University did not offer her protection, and it caused them to retaliate against her,” Willingham’s lawyer Heydt Philbeck said. “The policy at UNC exists but is very vague and is the bare minimum.”
The University’s policy for protection for reporting improper government activities says employees shouldn’t face intimidation when publicly reporting matters of concern.
Rick White, a University spokesman, said UNC needs to create a culture where people cannot be afraid to ask the tough questions of their co-workers.
“In a sense, we need to have more of a questioning attitude and not be afraid to ask these questions,” White said. “We need to start asking ourselves if it is really okay to ask each other these questions. I think you’ll find these answers to be yes because no one wants to see a repeat of what we’ve seen in the Wainstein report.”
At the Faculty Council meeting Friday, faculty expressed their frustrations with how the University treated Willingham, and some called for a formal apology.
“Had UNC embraced her leadership in 2012, the institution would have been spared years of humiliation and untold financial costs,” said Harry Watson, a history professor and a member of the athletics reform group.
Vin Steponaitis, a professor of anthropology, echoed Watson’s sentiments.
“The second was just an issue of making sure, moving forward, that if anything like this were ever to happen again, setting up a culture of a mechanism that people would be empowered to speak up about it — that’s a very important thing that we have to think about,” he said.
W. Hodding Carter, a professor of leadership and public policy, compared the scandal to Watergate at the Faculty Council meeting and said the University is tarnishing its reputation.
“The problem here is not a question of bad men, it’s a question of bureaucrats forgetting that they are in fact upholders of a long and glorious tradition and that you’ve had a responsibility not to avert your eyes or to say, ‘Go away, you miserable little bitch,’” he said.
“If you do not, in fact, apologize to Mary Willingham, you continue a process which is Nixonian from beginning to end.”
Provost Jim Dean said he couldn’t comment on the University’s relationship with Willingham because of the lawsuit.
Following Wainstein’s report, the University established confidential channels through which employees can safely raise concerns.
Effective communication, an established code of ethics and clear policies foster an environment in which employees feel comfortable bringing information forward, Board of Trustees member Dwight Stone said.
“We have policies and procedures put in place that our employees, staff and administrators all have to understand,” Stone said. “From a whistleblower’s standpoint, this is what provides a safe environment and culture. If you don’t have that at the outset, no one will come forward and present details if they don’t feel comfortable.”
Landen Gambill, a senior who filed a complaint against the University for its handling of sexual assault on campus, said UNC has a tendency to fix its appearance on the surface while issues fester at a deeper level.
“In order to make this university a place where people are comfortable speaking out against injustice, University power holders will have to decide that being just is better than appearing just,” said Gambill, who claimed the University Honor Court retaliated against her when she publicly identified the man she accused of raping her.
Gambill said she hopes students ask the tough questions because she does not believe change is going to come from the top down.
“It is going to come from students and workers who demand accountability and organize around making UNC an equitable and just place,” she said. “We have a long way to go.”
Louis Clark, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Government Accountability Project, said organizations should not be in denial about how bad the problem might be.
“For an institution to be as transparent and ethical as it would like, there needs to be an institutional desire to know about any problems,” he said.
For Willingham, the worst part of the ordeal was the hypocrisy — that the University promoted free speech without acting on what people said.
“I had a chance to say what I wanted to say,” Willingham said. “I kept saying it but nobody was listening.”