UNC, ex-learning specialist reach settlement to end 1 lawsuit in long-running academic scandal

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CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — The former North Carolina learning specialist who questioned the literacy level of Tar Heels athletes has reached a settlement to end her lawsuit against the school.

Mary Willingham and school spokesman Rick White confirmed the settlement Tuesday. It comes nearly eight months after she sued, saying she was demoted and the school retaliated against her after she raised concerns — including low reading levels for athletes and the use of "paper classes" requiring no class attendance to keep athletes eligible — before ultimately resigning.

Terms of the settlement weren't immediately available, though Willingham said in an email she wouldn't get her job back — one of the remedies she sought in the lawsuit in addition to financial damages. White said in a statement that the agreement must be approved by a judge before becoming final.

"I wanted to show other potential whistleblowers out there that it's possible to survive a fight with a big-money machine," Willingham said in a statement. "I thought it was time to get focused back on the issue of athletes and their educations — to correct the injustice in the NCAA system. I'm satisfied with the result."

White said in a statement the settlement "resolves all of the outstanding legal issues in the case."

"We appreciate the efforts of the mediator to help us achieve a successful and timely conclusion to the mediation," White said. "We believe the settlement is in the best interest of (UNC) and allows us to move forward and fully focus on other important issues."

J. Heydt Philbeck, Willingham's Raleigh-based attorney, didn't immediately return a call for comment Tuesday evening.

The settlement would end Willingham's case, though UNC faces fallout from the long-running academic fraud scandal — including two separate lawsuits from athletes, accreditation questions and a reopened NCAA investigation into academic misconduct.

The focus is problem courses in UNC's formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. They were often treated as independent studies that required no class time and one or two research papers.

An investigation conducted by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein reported that an office administrator — not a faculty member— typically handed out assignments then high grades after only a scan of the work, regardless of the quality. Wainstein's October report stated the fraud ran from 1993 to 2011 and affected more than 3,100 students, roughly half being athletes.


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