By GAP President Louis Clark.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds itself embroiled in scandal after publicly sparring with a whistleblowing instructor about the literacy levels of its student-athletes. This marks the second time the school’s athletic department has been rocked by allegations from the same employee, specialist Mary Willingham, who is credited with helping expose in 2012 that school athletes were enrolled in classes that did not exist.
Which raises the question: After a whistleblower is vindicated in uncovering major educational fraud, why treat her this way during a second round of whistleblowing?
This time around, the issue revolves around Willingham’s research illustrating that a small but significant portion (10 percent) of past UNC football and basketball players read below a third-grade level, and that some were illiterate. When major media outlets reported on this weeks ago, UNC released a statement rejecting the notion of illiteracy and failing to go into other allegations, because officials claimed to “have not seen that data” despite asking for it.
The UNC statement was shown to be dubious, as CNN obtained emails showing some of the data was shared with the school months ago, and university officials admitted to Willingham relaying “general information” as early as last August.
School officials are parsing their language carefully now, stating that Willingham had never delivered the full dataset as requested (she did on Jan. 13). Whatever rationale for the statement – be it a poor attempt at deception or simple plausible deniability – it seems clear that UNC’s kneejerk reaction to negative publicity from a whistleblower’s disclosure was to challenge the findings and the truth-teller. The effect is clear, and something whistleblowers across the country experience frequently: immediate public smearing that results in a chilling effect for other witnesses.
The university didn’t stop there. The Institutional Review Board has since halted Willingham’s research, explaining the action as a procedural matter involving data confidentiality. Furthermore, Chancellor Carol Folt posted an open letter to students stating the school has been unable to reconcile its data with what the media are reporting.
Lastly, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Jim Dean said using Willingham’s data to show student illiteracy was a “travesty.” At the same time, Dean and Folt announced that an independent, outside group would evaluate Willingham’s full dataset (while refusing to identify who would conduct that review or how it is independent). While a truly transparent third-party analysis is sorely needed and this move should be applauded, wasn’t Dean’s prejudgment of the data wildly premature? Doesn’t this action constitute public smearing?
Since 1977, I have held a leadership position at the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization. Every year, we represent numerous whistleblowers and help them expose corruption. In my view, the correct way to deal with whistleblowers is to recognize the problem at hand, address it appropriately, and publicly thank those who had the courage to speak out.
As a result of her whistleblowing, Willingham has received at least four death threats. This, along with UNC’s statements, made GAP wonder what whistleblower protections are in place at UNC. We corresponded with the school’s Office of University Counsel and the UNC General Counsel office. Essentially, the campus relies on the state employee whistleblower protection policy. University Counsel also informed us that concerns can be taken to the school’s Ombuds office.
The policy states school employees should be “free of intimidation or harassment” when blowing the whistle. It’s hard to see how university officials’ public attacks against Willingham would not be considered intimidating at the least.
Folt said the school is “investigating all claims being made” over Willingham’s allegations. Folt should also pledge to have an independent body investigate school officials’ public statements questioning Willingham to determine if intimidation or harassment occurred. Doing so would send a public message to North Carolina’s future professional leaders that whistleblowing is essential to integrity and fairness.