UNC 'fake classes' whistleblower to get $335K in settlement

Mary Willingham sued UNC, saying she was retaliated against after speaking out about fake classes.

Story highlights

  • Mary Willingham accused UNC of holding fake classes that helped athletes stay in school
  • The university denied the charge for years, but independent investigation confirmed it

(CNN)The University of North Carolina will pay whistleblower Mary Willingham $335,000 to settle her lawsuit with the university, following the largest academic fraud scandal in NCAA history.

Willingham is the former athletics literacy counselor who blew the whistle about the fake classes that went on for nearly 20 years at the prestigious university.
Willingham spent years fielding attacks from university officials -- including accusations that she was lying when she said that officials within the athletic department steered underprepared athletes into the fake classes to keep them eligible.
    For nearly five years, UNC denied those claims, but Willingham refused to keep quiet. She first told her story to the News & Observer in Raleigh, and then to national media when the university refused to admit that the classes were well-known to faculty.
    The added attention forced UNC to hire a new investigator and launch a new probe in 2014. That latest review, led by Ken Wainstein, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department, found exactly what Willingham had always claimed -- widespread and systematic cheating.
    Willingham left her job last spring after complaining that she was being retaliated against.
    "The University's settlement with Mrs. Willingham resolves all of the outstanding legal issues in the case," said Rick White, associate vice chancellor of communications and public affairs. "We appreciate the efforts of the mediator to help us achieve a successful and timely conclusion to the mediation. We believe the settlement is in the best interest of the University and allows us to move forward and fully focus on other important issues."
    When she sued, Willingham said she hoped to accomplish what no other investigation has done -- to subpoena documents and to depose university officials under oath. Her lawsuit never got that far.
    Instead, she says she's hoping that will be accomplished by a larger class-action lawsuit filed by powerhouse attorney Michael Hausfeld on behalf of two former UNC athletes.
    Devon Ramsay and Rashanda McCants both sued in January, saying they were promised an education but didn't get one because of the paper class scandal.
    Hausfeld is the attorney who beat the NCAA last summer in federal court on behalf of former UCLA player Ed O'Bannon, winning a case that will forever change college sports by forcing the NCAA to eliminate the rule that forbids schools from paying players.
    That lawsuit is the reason Willingham says she was OK with entering into mediation in her whistleblower suit. She shared the settlement document with CNN.
    "It's about the students and not about me. I don't need it to be about me," Willingham said. "I got an education, but those students left without one, and we still have a system that doesn't work. And so I'm hopeful that (the Hausfeld lawsuit) will move forward and prove that (NCAA Division I) schools all across the country have a flawed system where a promise of an education isn't happening, and therefore these students are getting nothing."
    Willingham is co-founder of Paper Class Inc., which serves as a portal and rallying point for the college sports reform movement and includes a program to give students reading help in middle school.