Dylan Blaylock, March 21, 2014

Today, March 21, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is releasing its March 6 letter sent to University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) Chancellor Carol Folt regarding university officials’ efforts to smear whistleblower Mary Willingham. A literacy specialist, Willingham disclosed that many past UNC-CH student-athletes could not read at a third-grade level.

Folt has not responded to GAP’s letter. Update (3/21/14, 6:30 pm): After the Associated Press published a story on the GAP letter earlier today, a UNC-CH official has responded to GAP for the first time. See below for more information.

Update #2 (3/27): UNC has responded a second time. See below.

In January, a CNN report showcased Willingham’s research, which revealed that 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. GAP’s letter describes the retaliation Willingham faced following the CNN story.

“UNC is failing ‘Whistleblowing 101′,” stated GAP President Louis Clark earlier today. 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. “School officials’ reaction to this whistleblower – who exposed a major academic scandal at the school a few years earlier – is disgraceful, morally wrong and legally questionable.”

Willingham is the whistleblower who exposed the “paper-class” scandal at the university. Media reports show Folt, on behalf of the school, recently accepted responsibility for that scandal, asserting that UNC-CH should be held “absolutely” accountable for allowing it to occur.

“While I applaud Folt for her leadership in admitting the school’s culpability and striving for accountability with regard to the ‘paper-class’ scandal, the conduct of UNC-CH officials toward Willingham does not conform to the Chancellor’s assertions of school responsibility,” stated Clark today.

The letter is available here.

Specifically, GAP’s letter focuses on instances of misconduct by school officials intent on retaliating against Willingham. These include:

  • The day after the CNN report was published, UNC-CH distributed a problematic and erroneous official statement that challenged Willingham’s honesty or competence, obfuscated her allegations, and relayed incorrect information (proven so by a follow-up media report). In reference to the university’s statement, Clark writes that “the school’s official reaction to negative publicity from Willingham’s disclosure was to contest the findings without having a basis to do so and attempt to personally discredit her by making prejudicial, misleading and/or inaccurate statements to the media … This conduct has a chilling effect that will dissuade other potential witnesses from coming forward.”
  • Later in January, according to media reports, a UNC-CH faculty meeting took place at which Vice Chancellor & Provost Jim Dean stated “Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this university.” Further, an official UNC-CH news release distributed on the day of the meeting states, in the opening paragraph, that Chancellor Folt and Vice Chancellor Dean “shared facts that laid out a range of serious mistakes made by Willingham.” Subsequent media reports (Bloomberg BusinessweekNews & Observer) show that UNC-CH faculty attending the meeting were troubled by the discussion. States Clark in the letter, “the negative effect on those UNC-CH employees who would consider providing information or insight into the matters at hand or reporting future wrongdoing is immeasurable.”
  • Vice Chancellor Dean’s negative public remarks about the matter have been labeled by independent journalists as “a gross distortion of Willingham’s statements.” In his letter to Folt, Clark writes, “Consequently, his false and explosive comments can have long-lasting and damaging effects on transparency within the university and on Willingham’s personal and professional standing. It is simply unacceptable for a person in a position of such authority to make disparaging comments about an employee who has raised legitimate and important concerns about the education of student-athletes.”

Weeks after the actions commenced, GAP inquired to the UNC-CH Office of University Counsel and the UNC General Counsel’s Office about the school’s whistleblower protection policy. Essentially, UNC-CH’s policy relies nearly verbatim on the North Carolina state employee whistleblower protection policy, which also affects Willingham as a state employee. The UNC-CH policy states school employees should be “free of intimidation or harassment” when blowing the whistle.

The letter concludes with two requests of Folt. First, given the Chancellor’s previous pledge to investigate “all the claims being made” regarding Willingham’s allegations, Clark urged that she “publicly address whether a separate investigation into [actions against Willingham] will be launched, so as to determine whether intimidation or harassment has occurred against Willingham.”

Second, the letter requests that “the school release information about the third-party independent board that is investigating Willingham’s claims,” so that the panel’s independence can be verified. The panel was alluded to in the school’s statement on the day of the January faculty meeting, and mentioned by school officials in various media reports since. However, little information is publicly known about it.

Copies of GAP’s letter were also received (two weeks ago) by UNC President Thomas W. Ross and UNC Board of Governors Chair Peter Hans. They have not responded.

Update (3/21/14, 6:30 pm): After the Associated Press published a story on the GAP letter earlier today, a UNC official has responded to GAP for the first time. Unfortunately, the response from UNC-CH Vice Chancellor for Communications and Public Affairs Joel Curran overwhelmingly fails to address the concerns raised by GAP President Louis Clark in his letter. Curran’s email, and Clark’s response, can be found here.

Update (3/27): Curran responded earlier this week to Clark’s response. Curran’s new response can be found here. Clark has yet to respond, as he is at an American Whistleblower Tour event this week.