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Ex-Learning Specialist Files Lawsuit Against the University of North Carolina

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. ― The former University of North Carolina learning specialist who questioned the literacy level of Tar Heels athletes and said that the university had committed academic misconduct has filed a civil lawsuit against the school.

Mary Willingham resigned after the spring semester. But according to a lawsuit filed Monday in Wake County, she 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.

Willingham is seeking to be reinstated to her job and damages of at least $10,000. The lawsuit also names the University of North Carolina public system that oversees the Chapel Hill school as a defendant.

Spokesman Joel Curran said in a statement Tuesday the school had no comment because it hadn’t been served with the lawsuit.

Willingham was hired as a part-time learning specialist for athletes in October 2003 and to a full-time position in December 2004. She eventually “became disillusioned” by seeing “widespread” improper assistance and conduct before taking another position in 2010. She reported her concerns in a meeting that year with two school officials after the NCAA launched an investigation into the football program, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states that Willingham was demoted last summer, required to report to weekly meetings with a supervisor and given new duties requiring extra training among other job changes after she gave media interviews and started a blog about her experiences.

Willingham complained about “hostile work conditions” and filed a grievance, but the school did not address her complaints, according to the lawsuit.

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. That included criticism from school provost James W. Dean Jr., after Willingham told CNN in January that the majority of football and basketball players she researched from 2004-12 read at below-grade levels.

Three outside experts hired by the school later said Willingham’s data did not support her conclusions.

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.

The lawsuit was filed the same day UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said the NCAA is reopening its probe into academic misconduct because new information is available.

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