UNC whistleblower Mary Willingham files lawsuit against school

Mary Willingham, a former academic advisor/reading specialist at the University of North Carolina, has filed a civil lawsuit against the university over the way she was removed from her position.

This according to the Associated Press.

Willingham has been the whistleblower and the only former/current UNC academic employee to consistently ask for accountability from the school amid an academic scandal that's now stretched to three years without resolution or punishment. On Monday, UNC announced the NCAA was re-opening its investigation into alleged prior academic fraud. It's a move that could potentially bring sanctions down on the school, depending on who talks to NCAA investigators.

Allegations of phony classes and phony grades date back to the late 1990s. Willingham, who worked for the UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, has gone on record in the past against the university and never relented in her claims.

"(I was) waiting for the university to do the right thing, and they still haven't done the right thing," she told WRAL in January.

Willingham worked at the school from 2003-2014; she resigned this past spring. In January she interviewed with CNN and revealed, via her own research, that 8-10 percent of the athletes admitted on scholarships at UNC between 2005-2012 were functionally illiterate and not able to read at a high school level. (The school denied these claims.)

Willingham helped tutor many of these athletes in the past, and it's been her outcries against what is/was the academic/athletic culture at the school that has kept the ongoing scandal in the news.

The lawsuit claims, via the Associated Press' reporting, Willingham "was demoted and the school retaliated against her after she raised concerns such as low reading levels for athletes and the existence of 'paper classes' requiring only one research paper at semester's end -- which she says helped keep athletes eligible."

Damage claims in the lawsuit total $10,000, and Willingham is asking for her job back. The lawsuit also includes clauses that prevent Willingham of being fired or relieved of her duty at UNC again in relation to this ongoing saga of UNC's stained academic reputation.

"It was troublesome for her and she let that be known," Willingham's lawyer, J. Heydt Philbeck, told the AP. "It wasn't well received we contend by some officials at UNC-Chapel Hill."

More from the report:

A whistleblower advocacy group, the Government Accountability Project, has sent letters to school chancellor Carol Folt and system president Thomas W. Ross in recent months questioning whether Willingham was mistreated or harassed. ... According to the lawsuit, the school spent about $500,000 over two years "to wage a public relations campaign" against Willingham and her claims of "improper, unethical, illegal and even corrupt treatment and services" for athletes.

Willingham has been a lightning rod for criticism, a voice willing to speak out against the athletes she once helped tutor in order to stay eligible. After initially speaking out in 2012 about her experiences with former UNC student-athletes, the school did not opt to interview her for the internal investigation on academic fraud until this past spring.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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