The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (“UNC”) has been used by many as a case study, highlighting the struggle the NCAA faces by promoting its billion dollar a year revenue steam from athletics against a backdrop of academic achievement. The term “student-athlete” has been scoffed at over the past few years, with many knowing full well that high profile athletic programs are not primarily focused on providing their players with a first rate education. To be fair, UNC is acting in a similar fashion to many other comparable schools, but it is merely the most recent school to have its “dirty laundry” aired for the public to see. Despite what may or may not be currently taking place in university classrooms, the NCAA and educators across the country are committed to raising the level of academics that high profile institutions provide to players.
Willingham researched 183 student-athletes at UNC between 2004-2012 and found that “60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels [and] [b]etween 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.”
Mary Willingham is a name that has become synonymous with UNC’s struggle in the wake of its academic scandals. Willingham worked in the UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling and was involved in research throughout her time at the university. Her research led her to conduct a study about the academic achievement levels of student-athletes at UNC. The report not only shocked the educators at UNC, it also reverberated throughout the country.
Willingham researched 183 student-athletes at UNC between 2004-2012 and found that “60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels [and] [b]etween 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.” UNC vehemently rebutted such findings and stated that the data was untrue. On or about January 16, 2014, UNC went as far as to disallow Willingham from conducting further research on the issue. The school stated that Willingham would have to re-apply to conduct any further research, something that she in fact sought to accomplish on the heels of her research being shut down.
Willingham announced her retirement from UNC in April 2014 after meeting with the Chancellor Carol Folt.
Willingham’s supporters questioned the reason UNC gave for shutting down her research. The university claimed that Willingham’s research was halted because she was using actual students’ names to compare to their academic scores. Since UNC had not previously approved of Willingham’s decision to use the names, the university did not allow her to continue the study.
The battle between Willingham and UNC did not end when the research stopped. Willingham announced her retirement from UNC in April 2014 after meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt. Although the specifics of the meeting are not well known, the final decision by Willingham did not come as a shock to many. It was clear that UNC did not want Willingham to be a part of any further research that could further harm their reputation.
An HWE claim stems from Title VII of the United States Code and provides the framework for protecting individuals from unequal employment opportunities.
After the dust had seemed to settle, Willingham came back into the spotlight after filing a lawsuit against UNC on June 30, 2014 claiming that the university had created a hostile work environment (HWE). An HWE claim stems from Title VII of the United States Code and provides the framework for protecting individuals from unequal employment opportunities. Under Harris v. Forklift Systems Inc. when a workplace is permeated with intimidation, ridicule, and insults that are sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the workplace, an HWE exists. Moreover, the person claiming the existence of an HWE does not necessarily need to state any economic harm, although an action for monetary damages is often included in an HWE complaint. Additional factors in determining whether an HWE exists include, but are not necessarily limited to: frequency of conduct of an alleged violation, physical threats, humiliation, offensive utterances, and/or a lack of psychological well-being stemming from conditions of the employment. An HWE can also exist when a “reasonable” person faced with the same or similar circumstances would have quit their employment if exposed to the same conditions, known as “constructive firing.”
Whether or not Willingham is successful heavily depends on whether she can prove the conditions of her employment were so severe and pervasive that she was essentially forced to leave her position.
In Willingham’s complaint, she also alleges that UNC retaliated against her. Willingham says that UNC made her move from her existing office to an office in “poor” condition and revoked her ability to advise undergraduate students. For a claim of retaliation to be successful, Willingham must show three criteria. First, she must show that she was partaking in a protected activity under Title VII. Second, Willingham must show she suffered a “material adverse employment action.” Last, Willingham must show that a “causal link” exists between the protected activity and the adverse action. A protected activity includes an employee’s opposition to an employer, but the definition of “opposition” has been heavily litigated due to the ambiguity of the word.
Willingham’s complaint states that “purposefully failing or refusing to take prompt and effective remedial action to eradicate Plaintiff’s hostile work environment” occurred at UNC. She is seeking $500,000 and an opportunity to return to her previous position if she so desires. Whether or not Willingham is successful heavily depends on whether or not she can prove the conditions of her employment were so severe and pervasive that she was essentially forced to leave her position.
This story and the recent complaint filed by Willingham represents much more than a lawsuit from a former employee of UNC. At the core of this contentious issue is how universities define themselves. Institutions of higher learning, along with the NCAA, have created for themselves a problem that must be fixed in order for educators to understand the role they play at their respective colleges and universities. Neglecting a student’s academics in pursuit of athletic accomplishments should not be the policy of a university, nor should a university have to compromise athletic excellence in order to achieve immaculate academic marks. An equilibrium exists somewhere between the two of these extremes that would allow for a university to achieve a high level of academic and athletic prowess. Willingham’s intentions behind her research are not well known. However, she knew that she had to make the decision to reveal her findings because of what she perceived was an importance to elevate standards in student-athletes. Hopefully these events will encourage further dialogue between the NCAA and universities that seek to maintain a healthy balance between athletic and academic success.