Whistleblower Accused of Plagiarism as UNC Scandal Widens

Mary Willingham, the former University of North Carolina learning specialist who worked with university athletes and blew the whistle on what became a major scandal, has been accused of plagiarizing her master’s thesis while studying at UNC-Greensboro (UNCG) in 2009.

According to the News and Observer, posts on an online message board called Inside Carolina had found multiple instances of passages in Willingham’s thesis, “Academics & Athletics — A Clash of Cultures: Division I Football Programs” that were taken from other sources without using proper citation.  Others were found to have been merely cut and pasted.

The newspaper independently used a website called WriteCheck that specializes in finding instances of plagiarism to do its own research on her paper, finding several “questionable passages”.

“As a higher education institution with high standards for academic excellence and integrity, we take allegations of academic misconduct very seriously,” UNCG Spokesman Paul Mason wrote in an email. “We review reported incidents thoroughly and take appropriate action in accordance with university policy.”

In an interview with Dan Kane for News & Observer, Willingham responded to the accusation by saying, “Whatever I did, I did and, you know, whatever.  There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Her 43-page thesis was found to have around 50 citations, with 32 cited sources.  Willingham contends that any missed citations were unintentional.

While the university plagiarism policy states that the punishment is a grade of F for the class or even expulsion from the university, there is no clear option for university graduates, writes Jon Newsom for The News and Record.

Willingham became a whistle-blower in 2011 when she discovered several African and Afro-American courses at the university did not actually meet.  An investigation would later reveal more than 200 courses who did not hold classes over the last two decades.

Willingham worked for the athletics department of the university until 2010, when she left to take another job within the university.  She resigned in May 2014, claiming she was being punished for speaking out against the campus.

“The former reading specialist who decried the ‘bogus,’ ‘no-show’ classes in which students were awarded high grades for ‘cut-and-paste’ papers, we discovered, completed her online master’s degree by submitting a cut-and-paste paper herself,’ wrote Bradley Bethel in his Coaching the Mind’ blog. He was hired as a learning specialist for athletes in September 2011, after the university put a stop to the no-show classes.

Willingham sued the university in July, accusing it of not taking her concerns toward the education of student-athletes on campus seriously and for transferring her to another position within the university after she brought up these claims.  North Carolina has asked that the case be moved to federal court.

The plagiarism scandal has certainly given a blow to her credibility.  It is unclear just how much the case will affect Willingham’s lawsuit.