UPDATE (5:24 P.M.): In an interview today with The Daily Tar Heel, Willingham said despite the settlement, she is disappointed she couldn’t return to UNC.
“I love to be on campus, I miss the students, I miss advising, I miss being a learning specialist," she said.
She has not ruled out coming back to the University.
“Maybe someday I’ll get to do that all again. I’m hopeful that someday that when all of this is behind us, you know 5 years down the road or something, I’ll be able to come back.”
Willingham’s settlement, which totaled more than a third of a million dollars, will be put toward working on NCAA reform as well as her literacy research.
“I’m in it to win it, as the NCAA says," she said. "We are going to try to dismantle this system, this big machine.”
She also mentioned she hopes the students affected by the academic fraud get the compensation they deserve, specifically mentioning the lawsuits filed by former football player Michael McAdoo and former women’s basketball player Rashanda McCants and former football player Devon Ramsey.
“I’m very proud of the students that stepped forward to raise their hand and say I’m going to file a lawsuit with these other students, and (the players’ attorneys Michael) Hausfield and Bob Orr and Jeremi Duru and all of them, I really think they are all doing God’s work at this point.”
Willingham compared the NCAA to a cartel, arguing that the for-profit governing body for collegiate athletes exploits students.
“The only way to break apart a cartel is to take away their money," she said. "So we are going to have to take away their money. And that’s going to happen in the courts."
To her, this problem is bigger than UNC.
“This is a civil rights issue, a social justice issue, and it needs to be fixed,” she said.
“I think the issues are bigger than the schools themselves; I think it is a Division 1 sports model issue, with the profit sports in particular. I think as long as we are connecting academic eligibility to playing time, there is going to be fraud. And there’s fraud happening right now. And it is happening not only at Carolina but across the country. These guys are still put in pass classes, they still don’t get the same education.”
Keeping Mary Willingham from her old post came at a big price for UNC.
According to documents released Tuesday, the former athletic learning specialist mediation settlement totaled $335,000. UNC will cover Willingham's legal costs as well as the mediation costs, according to reports from WRAL.
While her original suit mentioned a reimbursement, Willingham maintained up until the mediation settled that returning to her former position back was her top priority.
"This is where I live, this is where I raised my kids, it’s the only university that I have ever worked at,” she said in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel in January. “It’s the university that I love — I am a Tar Heel.”
Willingham's lawsuit, which was filed in June, claimed the University violated her first amendment rights and her state-protected whistleblower rights by creating a hostile working environment for her after she spoke out about student-athletes' inability to meet collegiate academic standards.
The lawsuit specifically referenced a faculty council meeting after a special report by CNN in January 2014 on Willingham's research.
The lawsuit said that Provost Jim Dean and Chancellor Carol Folt told the Faculty Council that Willingham's research was "so flawed" that it had "no merit." Dean also publicly called Willingham's research a "travesty," the lawsuit said.
Along with Willingham's hefty settlement, UNC also paid for high-powered legal help on the case. The University retained New York-based law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in January to handle this case, along with other legal issues facing the University, for a blended rate of $990 an hour for all partners working on the case.
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