A national nonprofit law firm that supports whistleblowers has asked UNC system President Tom Ross to tackle what it calls improper retaliation for Mary Willingham’s efforts to uncover academic fraud involving athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The Government Accountability Project began taking an interest in Willingham, the former learning specialist in the athlete’s tutoring program, after UNC-CH officials shot down her literacy research that became the basis of a CNN report in January. Issues surrounding the research include that Willingham hadn’t vetted her work before sharing a finding that the university had, over an eight-year period, admitted more than 100 athletes who could not read at the high school level.

Earlier this month, Willingham faced more criticism after the university released her correspondence with its research approval board that showed her research proposal was more about examining athletes’ undiagnosed learning disabilities than their reading abilities.

Louis Clark, the accountability project’s president, said in his six-page letter to Ross that the attacks on Willingham’s research have more to do with her role in outing academic fraud than a desire to find out the academic preparedness of athletes. Willingham had told The News & Observer in August 2011 about lecture-style classes within the African studies department that didn’t meet and required only a term paper. She said the tutoring program used the classes to help keep athletes eligible.

UNC officials have since confirmed the no-show classes, in which nonathletes also had enrolled. Clark asked Ross to focus on the evidence behind the scandal, and clarify whether the latest academic fraud investigation is looking into what Clark sees as retaliation against Willingham for blowing the whistle. The new investigation is being conducted by Kenneth Wainstein, a former high-ranking U.S. Justice Department official.

“In particular, I am greatly disturbed by what seems to be the continued mistreatment, harassment, and retaliation inflicted upon whistleblower and UNC-CH learning specialist Mary Willingham,” Clark wrote.

He said he wrote to Ross after receiving what Clark called a “woefully inadequate” response from UNC-CH spokesman Joel Curran to an earlier letter that Clark had written.

Curran’s response noted the university has an office to handle employee harassment claims, and it spoke to an independent review of Willingham’s literacy research by three outside experts hired by the university.

Those reviews did not back up Willingham’s findings. They looked at data relating to a vocabulary test. Willingham said her findings also were based on additional test results, plus her experiences working with many of the athletes.

Clark sided with Willingham.

“They’re not interested in giving this so-called independent group of people the evidence that Mary essentially had access to,” Clark said in an interview. “They are not willing to do that because the whole idea is to contain this information and bottle it up and make it seem like a crime for anyone to release that information.”

So far, Ross has not responded to Clark’s letter. UNC system spokeswoman Joni Worthington said a response is being prepared.

Willingham announced her resignation from the university last month, saying she is leaving because of a hostile work environment.

In his letter, Clark urged Ross to encourage Willingham to return to the university.

“She could prove an essential party if the university chooses to revamp and strengthen its existing whistleblower protection policy and overcome the credibility problems that the school now faces,” Clark wrote.