Willingham departing UNC, cites “irreconcilable differences”

Apr. 21, 2014 @ 06:01 PM

Mary Willingham, the academic adviser at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who alleged widespread illiteracy among student-athletes, is leaving the university.

On Monday afternoon, she confirmed that she would leave UNC after her last class today.

“The work environment has been unpleasant, the UNC fanatics are hostile, and I can see that it will not get better any time soon,” Willingham said.

Her decision came after a meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt, which Willingham said made it clear that she and the university have “irreconcilable differences.”

The permanent break came as a surprise to university officials, however.

Robbi Pickeral, a spokeswoman for UNC, confirmed that Willingham met with Folt and discussed plans to take some time off. No official paperwork had been filed late Monday.

“We were not aware of any changes to her employment status,” Pickeral said.

Willingham indicated in an email that she would meet with human resources and her attorneys on Tuesday. After that, she said, she’ll announce her plans.

Since January, Willingham’s findings -- that 60 percent of student-athletes tested between 2004 and 2012 couldn’t read above an eighth-grade level -- got broadcast on HBO, ESPN and CNN. But earlier this month, academics hired by UNC from three other universities examined some of her data and concluded that her findings were significantly flawed.

Those experts determined that although some tested students appeared to fall below the national average on knowledge of vocabulary, the statistics shouldn’t be assigned a grade level and didn’t guarantee failure.

“Overall, the normative data suggest that the student athletes in the sample are below average, but not dramatically, compared to the general population in reading vocabulary,” wrote Nathan Kuncel, a psychology professor from the University of Minnesota who helped examine her data.

Just a day before UNC released the findings of those consultants, Willingham spoke to a social work class at N.C. Central University about her efforts to fight the NCAA, which she compared to a drug cartel making money “on the backs of our children.”

She told students that she’s been attacked on Twitter, called names and received death threats.

“I’m tough as an old boot,” she said at the time.

On Monday, Willingham said that she felt sad about leaving UNC.

“I am sad because I am a Tar Heel,” she said. “Maybe someday they will acknowledge that about me – I plan on it.”

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