Mary Willingham

As academic advisor to student athletes at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Mary Willingham assumed that the purpose of the university to educate its students, such students including the athletes she was advising.

Based on the university’s reaction to her findings on how they were doing that job, such an assumption was perhaps naïve.

Willingham, a reading specialist, conducted research on 183 UNC-Chapel Hill football and basketball players from 2004 to 2012. She found 60% of them reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and 10% reading at below a third-grade level.

But there’s more. Willingham and others have found many “irregularities” in UNC’s curriculum when it comes to athletes: coursework requiring only a “research paper” and no other submission for a grade; tutors writing those papers for student-athletes; classes that never even met. And in over a decade working at UNC, Willingham herself has worked with athletes who could not read or write. One student even asked her to teach him to read well enough to follow news reports about his games.

None of this was a secret, of course. The idea of pushing athletes—regardless of their skills and knowledge—into classes where they could get grades sufficient to remain eligible for sports was well-known, not only at UNC but at many “educational” institutions throughout the country.

When she presented her findings to the administration, however, the response was less than positive. The administration denied everything, hired outside “experts” to challenge her findings, and, after Willingham went to the media, called her a liar. Not only that, but they also demoted her and gave her additional duties that would require “extensive training.” Henceforth, she would no longer be advising undergraduate students, and she’d have to move her office.

Finally, Willingham sued. “It’s been a hostile work environment the entire year,” she said. “I've stuck it out because I want to make good on promises to my students, but it has not been fun.”

In the meantime, her claims have been substantiated by others. CNN produced a survey showing that large numbers of varsity athletes can barely read or write. Others, including athletes themselves, have concurred.

Subjected to an extremely hostile work environment, Willingham left UNC but is suing for damages, and to get her job back, without the hostile environment.

“(I was) waiting for the university to do the right thing,” says Willingham, “and they still haven’t done the right thing.”


In the spring of 2014, after a meeting with the chancellor of the University of North Carolina, Mary Willingham announced her resignation. “I have a grievance in play,” said Willingham. “I’ve been retaliated against. My work environment is not pleasant. I’m treated differently than other employees in my unit and in the unit around me. . . . It was time to end this hostility. This chancellor has totally sold out.”