Whistleblower advocate wants UNC intervention for Willingham

May. 28, 2014 @ 09:49 PM

The leader of a national whistleblower advocacy group has asked Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina System, to delve into allegations of mistreatment by learning specialist Mary Willingham.

In a letter to Ross dated May 6, but released on Wednesday, Louis Clark of the Government Accountability Project urged the UNC System president to investigate assertions that Willingham was intimidated and harassed until she left the university. She cited a hostile work environment and irreconcilable differences for her departure from UNC Chapel Hill after meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt.

“Allowing her to withdraw from the school, sans any attempt by UNC-CH superiors to entice her to remain in her position, makes it abundantly clear that whistleblowers are not welcome at UNC,” Clark wrote. “The chilling effect of UNC’s hostile behavior toward Willingham will last for years and hinder the institution’s ability to root out future wrongdoing and take corrective action.”

Willingham made national news earlier this year by telling CNN, ESPN and HBO that 68 percent of student-athletes tested at Chapel Hill – especially on the men’s basketball and football teams – couldn’t read at a high school level.

The university then hired three academics from other colleges who raised questions about assigning grade-levels to literacy using the data at her disposal. None of them could replicate her statistical findings.

She also talked about classes that only required students to produce a single term paper at the end of the semester. The university already had been scandalized by ephemeral courses offered in the African and Afro-American Studies program by Julius Nyang’oro that led to criminal charges.

Beyond the questions raised about her findings, Willingham also has come under fire from UNC reading specialist Bradley Bethel. He has voiced concerns about the veracity of her data, as well as whether she and her research partners violated student privacy by identifying specific athletic teams.

Said Clark in his letter: “I believe that the actions taken since January 7, including the framing of the commissioned reports and their media rollout – may constitute further harassment and intimidation of Willingham that could comprise a violation of both school policy and state law. To that end, an independent inquiry needs to address the serious questions about possible intimidation or harassment of Willingham.”

He urged Ross to invite Willingham to stay so that she could help strengthen the university’s whistleblower protection policy and overcome credibility problems.

“In my experience, many institutions, when faced with whistleblowing disclosures, have followed a path of denial, mischaracterization, cover-up and retaliation,” Clark wrote. “Involving whistleblowers in a meaningful way is difficult. However, the rewards for doing so can be significant in resolving problems and enhancing the reputation of the organization.”

UNC Chapel Hill officials deferred comment to Ross’ office, which did not respond for comment late Wednesday.

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