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UNC files petition to move Willingham case to federal court

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Mary Willingham said her research of 183 football or basketball players from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels. Mary Willingham said her research of 183 football or basketball players from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is asking that a lawsuit by a former academic specialist be moved to federal court, according to court documents.

UNC filed a petition Wednesday seeking to move Mary Willingham’s civil suit from Wake County District Court to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

“The University moved Ms. Willingham’s lawsuit to federal court on Wednesday because the case raises issues of federal law," said Joel Curran, vice chancellor for communications and public affairs at UNC. "She originally filed her claims in Wake County. We continue to believe the facts will demonstrate that Ms. Willingham was treated fairly and appropriately while she was employed at Carolina.”

Willingham claims that UNC violated her First Amendment rights as well as the North Carolina Whistleblower Act.

Willingham resigned from her job at Carolina at the end of the spring semester after she said she became troubled by "widespread, unethical, and even corrupt academic assistance that she had personally witnessed various student-athletes receiving from university officials and staff."

She also said her boss "began retaliating" against her after he knew she was giving information to The News & Observer.

She then filed a suit against the university in June asking for her position back, that she be compensated at three times her actual damages of an estimated $30,000, and that she have a jury trial.

Earlier this year, Willingham told CNN that her research of 183 football or basketball players at UNC from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level.

After the story came out, UNC Provost James Dean called Willingham's research "a travesty" at one of the university’s faculty meetings.

During that meeting, Dean gave a breakdown of UNC's research after Willingham challenged the academic abilities of Tar Heel athletes in the primary revenue sports.

But Willingham did not back down on her criticism and continued her attack on the Carolina athletics culture.

UNC told Willingham she could not continue to use data with information that could identify the subjects until she applies to the university's review board that governs human research. The research board is the Institutional Review Board, commonly called the IRB, and such boards govern research at college campuses.

At a meeting earlier this year, Provost Dean said university research shows the data Willingham used was not meant to evaluate reading levels.

But Willingham, in a response after the meeting, told WNCN, "The way Provost Dean explained my data analysis is 100 percent incorrect. I have done work with this data set for the last six years and have a good understanding of what I am doing."

Willingham said she occasionally seeks help from experts in other fields, but that the university never called them to understand the data.

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