Lawsuit details alleged UNC retaliation against whistleblower

Jul. 01, 2014 @ 07:03 PM

Mary Willingham, a former University of North Carolina researcher, was demoted, isolated and subject to retaliation for telling the truth, she charges in a suit filed in Wake County court.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by attorney J. Heydt Philbeck of Raleigh, accuses the UNC system and UNC-Chapel Hill of creating a hostile work environment that ultimately drove Willingham to leave her job.

She’s demanding a jury trial, more than $10,000 in damages and reinstatement to her job at the university, with an injunction calling for retaliation to cease.

Officials at UNC on Tuesday declined to respond specifically to allegations in the suit.

“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is aware of the lawsuit filed by former employee Mary Willingham," said Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications and public affairs at UNC. "We respect the right of any current or former employee to speak out on important University and national issues. We believe the facts will demonstrate that Ms. Willingham was treated fairly and appropriately while she was employed at Carolina.”

Willingham gained prominence during the past year by raising concerns about student-athlete literacy levels, asserting that many of those tested – especially in so-called “money sports” such as basketball and football – couldn’t read above an eighth-grade level.

She also complained about the university’s emphasis on athletic dominance over academic integrity. UNC has been under fire in recent years for no-show classes and courses known as “paper classes” because they rarely meet and only require the student to complete a term paper by the end.

The NCAA this week reopened an investigation into academic irregularities involving student-athletes.

The suit details reprisals that Willingham claims to have suffered, including:

-- A demotion in July 2013 and a requirement to meet weekly with her supervisor.

-- Extra job duties requiring additional training during summer that could interfere with vacation plans.

-- Isolation from undergraduate students and reassignment to providing academic advice to graduate students. She could only tutor seniors.

-- Strictly enforced afternoon work hours that prevented her from attending regular faculty meetings and athletic-reform group meetings.

-- A requirement to make written requests for all time off 30 days in advance.

-- Being forced to move her office to “another space with poor work conditions that would be shared with a retired professor.”

-- Attacks on her character and false allegations that she had violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to intimidate her.

Delay in handling of her grievance about her treatment.

Willingham’s suit also asks UNC to pay all court costs, including expert witness fees, deposition costs and attorney’s fees.

Wes Platt can be reached at wplatt@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6684. Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt.