UNC Challenged on Continued Retaliation Against Whistleblower

UNC President Ross Urged to Take Steps;
GAP Critical of School-Commissioned Analysis, Presentation

Update: A representative from UNC has responded to GAP. See below.

(Washington, DC) – Today, May 28, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is releasing its May 6 letter, sent to University of North Carolina (UNC) President Thomas Ross regarding UNC-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) officials’ recent apparent acts of smearing, harassing and retaliating against whistleblower Mary Willingham. To date, GAP has not received a response from Ross or any other UNC official.

The letter, written by GAP President Louis Clark, urges Ross to explain the school’s plans to address several potentially illegal acts of apparent reprisal against Willingham. In particular, Clark asks if UNC will investigate the matter. Further, the letter harshly criticizes school officials’ actions taken against the whistleblower over the last two months, including a “disingenuous” presentation made to the UNC-CH Board of Trustees about student-athletes and several glaring shortcomings in a school-commissioned analysis of some of Willingham’s data. Clark concludes the letter by encouraging Ross to contact the whistleblower directly and encourage her to stay at the school (she resigned weeks ago). Highlights of the letter can be found below.

The letter is available here.

Willingham was a UNC-CH literary specialist before she left the university weeks ago. In January, a CNN report showcased her research that revealed an estimated 8-10 percent of UNC-CH revenue-sport student athletes from 2004-12 read below a third-grade level and that some were functionally illiterate.

In March, Clark sent a letter to UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt, explicitly detailing how actions taken by university officials seemed to constitute harassment and intimidation against Willingham, which could be a violation of both state law and school policy. As was the case with Clark’s March letter, weeks have now passed since GAP sent its recent letter without reply. Only after media reports emerged about the March letter did a different university official respond – a message that, writes Clark, was “woefully inadequate and failed to address my primary concerns.”

Clark is a founder of GAP – the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization – and has been involved in protecting whistleblowers for the last 36 years.

Highlights of the May 6 Letter

GAP’s letter is divided into two parts: asking Ross to answer pressing questions that Chancellor Folt and UNC-CH Vice Chancellor of Communications and Public Affairs Joel Curran chose not to address in Clark’s March letter; and detailing the retaliatory actions taken against Willingham since early March that may violate North Carolina whistleblower protection laws.

First, Clark seeks answers from Ross on two issues that Folt and Curran chose to ignore:

  • Whether an investigation would be launched into UNC-CH officials’ actions against Willingham
  • Whether independent counsel Kenneth Wainstein will specifically be investigating the treatment of and actions taken against Willingham since the January CNN report was published

Clark then criticizes multiple actions taken by university officials. Passages from the letter about these points include:

Regarding the March 27 Presentation:

By showcasing both non-revenue-sport student-athletes and select revenue-sport student-athletes, the school continues to cloud the issue, a tactic that is a true disservice to public discourse and transparency … Willingham’s key assertion in the CNN piece, which I continue to focus on, is that approximately 8-10 percent of past student-athletes (2004-12) who participated in revenue-sports read below a third-grade level, and some that Willingham interacted with are functionally illiterate. Combating her allegations with cherry-picked current nonrevenue-sport athletes is a disingenuous action that failed to address her concerns.

Regarding the Provost Dean’s Office Authoring the Executive Summary of the Outside Analysis:

I was immediately troubled to see that the office of Provost Dean was involved in writing the Executive Summary. Dean has been previously criticized by independent journalists and others for his actions specifically in regard to retaliation against Willingham … including his assertion that Willingham lies (only to retract the statement when pressed) and his January 17 presentation with Folt lambasting Willingham and her data – calling it a “travesty” – before commissioning outside experts. That particular action was nothing but prejudicial propaganda.

On UNC-CH’s Commissioned Analysis of Willingham’s Data:

The notion that the school’s commissioned report is an “independent” effort designed to competently evaluate the issue is belied by the facts. UNC-CH officials set the parameters, controlled the flow of information to the outside professionals, and posed a very narrow set of questions to be answered – queries that apparently did not require interaction with the whistleblower or her collaborators. Based on my experience working with many different whistleblowers over three decades, such an approach is not a legitimate methodology for investigating a whistleblower’s disclosures. Commissions and investigators are supposed to operate independently of the alleged offending organization (UNC-CH), not decline to meet with those who may have evidence of wrongdoing. (Please note that in no way am I suggesting that the three commissioned outside academic professionals acted improperly…)

On Willingham’s Resignation, which She Announced after a Meeting with Chancellor Folt:

[UNC-CH’s Joel] Curran told reporters that Folt said “that she had what she felt was a productive meeting.” If the whistleblower decided to leave after this meeting, how “productive” could it have possibly been? Alternatively, how does Chancellor Folt define productive? Unless the intention of the meeting was to pressure Willingham into leaving, I do not see how the meeting could be described as such…

Allowing [Willingham] to withdraw from the school, sans any attempt by UNC-CH superiors to entice her to remain in her position, makes it abundantly clear that whistleblowers are not welcome at UNC. The chilling effect of UNC’s hostile behavior toward Willingham will last for years and hinder the institution’s ability to root out future wrongdoing and take corrective action … I urge you, if you have not yet done so, to invite Willingham to stay.

Copies of GAP’s May 6 letter were also received (three weeks ago) by Folt and UNC Board of Governors Chair Peter Hans. They have not responded. Clark’s March letter is available here, and Curran’s response to the letter is available here.

Update: UNC Vice President & General Counsel Thomas Shanahan has responded to GAP on behalf of President Ross. Shanahan’s letter is available here.

Contact: Dylan Blaylock, GAP Communications Director
Phone: 202.457.0034, ext. 137
Emaildylanb@whistleblower.org