Death threats and denial for woman who showed college athletes struggle to read
(CNN) — Mary Willingham tried to help struggling student-athletes at the University of North Carolina learn to read. First it was just one case, then another and another.
Seeing a bigger problem, Willingham researched the reading abilities of football and basketball players at the Chapel Hill campus, and then raised the alarm when she found many with only elementary school literacy, so low they were unable to follow college courses.
The Drake Group selected Willingham in April as the 10th recipient of an award recognizing university faculty or staff who speak out about academic integrity at their institutions.
Many of them risked their jobs doing it.
One of the earliest whistle-blowers was Jan Kemp, who in the early 1980s exposed the University of Georgia for allowing football players who failed a remedial English class to play in a bowl game.
"There is no real sound academic reason for their being here other than to be utilized to produce income." Kemp told Sports Illustrated in 1986. "They are used as a kind of raw material in the production of some goods to be sold ... and they get nothing in return."
She was demoted and then fired, and the trauma led her to attempt suicide twice in the 1980s, once by stabbing herself in the chest with a butcher knife. She also sued UGA officials, saying she was terminated unlawfully, and won compensatory and punitive damages from a jury. She was later reinstated at the university and Georgia later tightened academic standards for its athletes, the New York Times reported in 2008.
She was the Drake Group's first honoree in 2004. The group, an organization of educators and activists who push for academic reform, now annually awards its Higgins Award on faculty who stand up for academic integrity.
Kemp died four years later, her son told The Associated Press as reported by the New York Times, of complications from Alzheimer's disease.
The harassment that haunted Kemp has happened to several others since.
In the late 1990s, Linda Bensel-Meyers was in a similar position at Tennessee -- an English teacher who saw tutors doing far too much work for athletes who were far too under-prepared for college coursework.
In 2003, after years of hate mail and verbal attacks, she decided to leave Tennessee because death threats mentioned her children.
Bensel-Meyers said she was treated so badly she had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and when she resigned, she told the university in her resignation letter: "No faculty member should ever find her attempts to do her job met with institutional threats and public attacks on her character."
Tennessee, when contacted by CNN, would not say whether it still uses the system that Bensel-Meyers alleged was in place -- where a school psychologist would diagnose learning-disabled athletes and put them in a program that allowed them to forgo graduation requirements all other students had to meet.
"Many of the records I looked at revealed that these athletes came to us essentially illiterate and still left the school functionally illiterate." Bensel-Meyers told CNN.
In 2009, Sally Dear-Healey, adjunct lecturer at Binghamton University, told the New York Times she was pressured to change her grading policy for basketball players who were missing classes. About seven months later, she was fired, and The Times reported that Dear-Healey felt it was because she spoke out. The university denied that charge.
Louisiana State University instructor Tiffany Terrell-Mayne settled a lawsuit with the school in 2005 after alleging she was told to change grades to keep football players eligible for a bowl game.
LSU admitted to some NCAA violations in the early 2000s, and the probe went away.
Then-coach Nick Saban said publicly that he knew of no cheating. Then-Chancellor Mark Emmert -- now the president of the NCAA -- said at the time Terrell-Mayne and another whistle-blower were tying personal issues to NCAA violations.
Willingham said that since she began speaking out about what she saw at the University of North Carolina, she has felt harassed by the university. She took her grievances to a peer panel at UNC, but they found no evidence of retaliation.
"It's very sad that people like Linda, Mary and others, who are dedicated to higher education, have to be subjected to this kind of intimidation for merely doing their jobs," said Allen Sack, director of the Drake Group.