Current and former faculty who have filed suit against KU formed an informal support group to help each other through the process.
Assistant professor Mike Cuenca felt isolated at Kansas University while engaged several years in a nasty personnel conflict with his employer.
He's found comfort in an informal support group of other KU faculty and former faculty involved in similar career-jeopardizing clashes, some of which have advanced to the point of filing lawsuits against KU and administrators. A half-dozen people typically meet for lunch once a week at a downtown diner.
"I went at this myself for four years," said Cuenca, who filed an amended complaint against KU in April. "This group has been great."
Cuenca, a 41-year-old Asian-American, filed suit based on allegations he was a victim of racial discrimination at KU through the actions of James Gentry, current journalism dean, and Mike Kautsch, a former journalism dean. He seeks punitive damages against Gentry and Kautsch for alleged retaliation against him.
Kautsch, now a member of KU's law faculty, and Gentry said Wednesday that university policy prohibited them from discussing the case.
"We can't comment on litigation," said Rose Marino, KU's associate general counsel.
Two of the people Cuenca meets with are Cynthia Annett and Raymond Pierotti, who filed suits in February that claim KU and a department chairman engaged in sex discrimination against Annett in denying her tenure and in race discrimination through interaction with Pierotti, who is American Indian.
Annett no longer works at KU, while Pierotti is a tenured member of the ecology and evolutionary biology department.
Some in the lunch group have turned to litigation, while others haven't reached that stage. Most won't, choosing to quit KU and move on to other jobs.
"No one goes through this lightly," said Cuenca, who was hired by KU in 1994 and is applying for tenure despite the suit filed in U.S. District Court.
Cuenca said the university typically used its capacity to undermine a faculty member's personal and professional credibility once that person signed on as an adversary. That's what happened to him, he said.
"You are vilified," he said. "They are going to try to make us all look really bad."
Cuenca said after a 1995 meeting at which he asked to be relieved of responsibility for a fourth class, for which he wasn't compensated, Kautsch convened a faculty meeting to fire him. That effort failed and Kautsch placed Cuenca on secret probation, Cuenca said.
"It got worse," he said. "He made life miserable for me."
Annett said her lawsuit was about more than money and a job. She said the university's system for handling disagreements among faculty and administrators on employment issues, such as tenure, was dysfunctional.
"We've not been able to get the appeals process to work," she said.
She said decisions about tenure and promotion were often based on subjective issues -- not a person's merit in terms of research, teaching and public service. Personality and ideological disagreements among junior and senior faculty play a key role, she said.
"We think tenure should be based on merit," Annett said.
Members of the group weren't especially hopeful about winning big court cases against KU, but were convinced their efforts would make the university's personnel system more accountable to faculty in the future.
Annett said: "We're optimistic we will make a difference."
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