CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill advisor Mary Willingham, the whistleblower who claimed some student athletes were functionally illiterate, said the university's independent probe into academic fraud confirms what she's said all along.
"I think for me, it's just a sad day because it does confirm the paper class system," Willingham said to ESPN's Outside the Lines. "It was a detailed report and a good effort and the university is trying to do the right thing finally after many long years."
As part of the review, Willingham says she spoke to investigators in April for two hours. She credited UNC Chancellor Carol Folt for launching the effort and acknowledged former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, who is a partner with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, worked hard, but said his research didn't go deep enough.
"One thing that's still a little bit vague is this whole idea of eligibility and keeping athletes eligible because they were not able to do the work," Willingham explained.
The former UNC reading specialist first became a household name about two years ago when, in published reports, she claimed some student-athletes she worked with were functionally illiterate.
Willingham was ostracized, later resigned, and recently filed a lawsuit claiming she was harassed, demoted, and reassigned for whistleblowing.
"I have a lot of haters still. Early this week there was a death threat with someone that helped me with a video. You know it's just the life of a whistleblower," she said.
Ironically, Willingham's position as a social pariah continues over parts of her Master's thesis at UNC-Greensboro that her critics allege she plagiarized.
"The thing with my Master's thesis from 2009 was there were a few mistakes in it, and I think mistakes need to be fixed," Willingham defended, "I don't think it has anything to do with me working as a reading specialist with athletes for seven years at the University of North Carolina. I don't really see the connection there."
Willingham says it just proves people have placed sports and entertainment over the need of the student-athlete.
"That's the real issue here. It has nothing to do with me, or my Master's thesis or being vindicated today. It has nothing to do with any of that," said Willingham. "We need to focus on the athletes who are not getting what we promised them."
Willingham has written a book with UNC History Professor Jay Smith titled "Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports." It is due out in March.
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