The University of North Carolina has agreed to settle a whistleblower lawsuit claiming the school was involved in one of the biggest academic fraud scandals in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Administration (NCAA). UNC agreed to pay former literacy councilor Mary Willingham $335,000 to settle claims that the school set up fake classes in order to help student athletes remain eligible to play sports. She also claims to have left her post at the school because she was being retaliated against after going public with her claims.
According to the lawsuit, officials in the UNC athletic department steered student-athletes into ‘paper classes’ for roughly 20 years, robbing them of the chance to get an education. When Willingham came forward with these accusations, the university attacked her, calling her claims lies.
For about five years, the school denied Willingham’s claims, but she refused to give in. She first went public with her accusations to the Raleigh News & Observer, and later told her story to the national media.
In 2014, as more and more attention focused on the school, UNC hired an independent investigator to start looking into Willingham’s claims. The investigation, conducted by 19-year Justice Department veteran Ken Wainstein, verified Willingham’s claims that the University had engaged in systematic academic cheating. Although she sought her job back, that was not included in the settlement.
Willingham hopes that a class action lawsuit filed by two former students will pick up where she left off. Rashanda McCants and Devon Ramsey filed suit last year, claiming the university’s ‘paper classes’ deprived them of an education. According to CNN, the ongoing class action is the reason Willingham felt comfortable entering into mediation and ultimately agreeing to settle her own lawsuit.
Willingham told CNN that she’s hopeful the class action will prove that NCAA Division I schools use a flawed system where promises of an education are being broken, leaving student-athletes with nothing to build their future upon.