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The Daily Tar Heel

Mary Willingham settles lawsuit with UNC, will not return as employee

The settlement does not allow the former learning specialist to return to UNC.

Eight months after she first sued UNC for creating a hostile work environment, the former student-athlete learning specialist reached a settlement with the University during mediation this week. Willingham will receive monetary compensation as part of the settlement.

She originally sought to return to the University, according to the lawsuit she filed in June.

“I feel good. I think that it was time to get back to the real issue at stake here, which is that the athletes need to get a real education and we need to fix the college sports system,” said Willingham in an interview Tuesday. “That’s where I need to focus my efforts, and we all need to focus on fixing that as a problem.”

Details of the settlement will be released after they’re approved by Judge Terrence Boyle.

Willingham declined to say how much she will receive from the suit. In her original complaint, Willingham asked for at least $10,000.

“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,” said Rick White, the associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs.

Willingham said she was pleased with how mediation went. She said Chancellor Carol Folt was present during the mediation, along with both sides’ teams of lawyers.

Willingham first gained recognition in January 2014, when she released research that showed 60 percent of the 183 athletes in her study could only read between a fourth- and eighth-grade reading level.

In the ensuing months, the University tried to dismantle Willingham’s claims, an effort the lawsuit says was largely led by Provost Jim Dean. Willingham said the University violated her whistleblower protection rights, which are defined in the North Carolina Whisteblower Act. Willingham ultimately resigned at the end of the spring 2014 semester after an hour-long meeting with Folt.

This week’s settlement should empower other people in similar positions to expose institutional wrongdoing, Willingham said.

“I would also like whistleblowers here and across the country to recognize that we can stand up to the system and, in the end, truth will prevail and we can win,” she said.

Going forward, Willingham said she’s excited to take advantage of the ongoing national conversation on athletics to fix the parts of the collegiate model she believes are broken.

“We have a little bit of movement going — there’s a lot of interest in the college sports model,” Willingham said.

She said she’s working with groups like The Drake Group, Inc. to produce papers on college athletics. She’s also working with middle school students to help them improve their reading comprehension and vocabulary.

“It’s one ball out of the air, but there’s still so many balls in the air,” Willingham said. “Now we can take one out and focus on the others still in the air.”

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