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UNC Whistle Blower Mary Willingham Pushes Back Against Critics (VIDEO)

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University of North Carolina-Chapel reading specialist Mary Willingham struck back Thursday at critics regarding her research suggesting dozens of student athletes were under-prepared and read at an elementary-level.

"I don't believe until we tell the truth that we can move forward," Willingham said in a HuffPost Live segment.

Willingham's research showing 8 percent of a sample of UNC students playing football and basketball were reading at a 3rd grade level was at the center of a recent CNN report. It has since reignited an athletic academic scandal that's continued for 3 years now.

The university already admitted to academic fraud in the African and Afro-American studies department, and that fake classes were held. However, it has attacked Willingham's research as flawed while at the same time admitting shortcomings.

"It's just the same response that we've been seeing here for the past 3 years," Willingham said, adding, "We just can't seem to be fully transparent."

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, who only took office in 2013, admitted to UNC trustees last week that the flagship university failed students for years with a lack of academic oversight.

"This, too, was wrong. And it has undermined our integrity and our reputation," Folt said.

James Dean, UNC executive vice chancellor and provost, told Bloomberg Businessweek the university offered phony classes for decades, and "Horrible things happened that I’m ashamed of."

UNC student president Christy Lamden lauded the administration's response thus far.

"I think students for the most part were delighted to see the chancellor last week step up and acknowledge that we had a problem in the past," Lamden said during the segment.

While a majority of student athletes will do fine at the university, Willingham said the problem is another 150 to 200 are under-prepared and sitting in classes next to students who scored 200 to 300 points higher than them on their SATs. According to CNN, within that minority, some couldn't read the word "Wisconsin."

"They're feeling hurt by the accusations ... and I think they are feeling angry," Lamden said of the student athletes. He believes much of the media coverage "misled a lot of people into believing that the problem is a lot wider than the initial data that miss Willingham's suggests."

Willingham faced criticism by Matt Merletti, a former UNC football player who's now a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.

"Talking about being underprivileged and not being able to compete on an academic level, I think that problem comes much before college," Merletti said on HuffPost Live. "And I think that if you were sincere in trying to help these kids i just dont see how bashing our university and bashing our kids and humiliating kids is really doing good."

Willingham insisted she wants to help the athletes, but "not every tutor is going to be able to help." It's going to take real reading and writing teachers, she explained.

"Let's help them," she said. "Let's give them the real help that they need. So that when they leave here, they'll have a real degree."

Watch the entire segment in the video below:

CORRECTION: This article previously referred to Mary Willingham as a professor. Her actual role at UNC-Chapel Hill is a reading specialist and academic advisor.

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