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Archive for Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Fellowship director sues over firing

Lawsuit alleges dismissal from KU came after practices questioned

February 4, 2004

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The former director of a Kansas University doctoral fellowship program is suing the university, claiming she was unfairly fired for blowing the whistle on the program's problems.

Danette Michaels directed the Madison and Lila Self Graduate Fellowship program from 1996 until she was given notice in December that her contract would not be renewed.

The lawsuit claims Michaels challenged a change in policy she contends was intended to reduce the number of women involved in the Self program. She also says she had raised other legal and ethical questions regarding the program's administration before being fired.

"The decision not to reappoint (Michaels) was in retaliation for (her) expressions of concern about perceived violations of federal law, university policies and practices and sound ethical principles," the suit alleges.

Lynn Bretz, a KU spokeswoman, said she was unable to comment because the university hadn't been officially served with the lawsuit. It was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan.

The suit names as defendants Chancellor Robert Hemenway; David Shulenburger, provost and executive vice chancellor; Howard Mossberg, former managing trustee of the Self program; and Jimmy Morrison, current managing trustee.

Lawsuit background

The Self Fellowship program was established in 1991 with $20 million from Madison "Al" and Lila Self of Hindsdale, Ill. Al Self is the former owner of Bee Chemical Co. in Lansing, Ill., and was chairman and CEO of Tioga International Inc.

The program provides $22,000 annually to about 35 doctoral candidates at KU. It also offers career development programs to aid in job placement.

According to the lawsuit, Michaels began raising concerns in 1998 about how much control Al and Lila Self had over the program. The lawsuit contends the Selfs complained that too many women were being picked by the selection panel, which included Michaels and a panel of current Self fellows.

Forty-five women and 31 men have been selected since the program was founded.

Administrators announced in 2002 that the program would begin only allowing students from "hard science" majors. Michaels contends that move was intended to exclude women, since more men are involved in the sciences.

However, the 2003 class of five Self fellows included only women. The suit alleges KU officials met with the Selfs to investigate "how that had happened and how it could be avoided in the future." Gender is not a written consideration for application.

Michaels' attorney, Michael Shultz of Lawrence, said his client also had complained to her supervisors that the new program guidelines would discriminate against older students, that hiring practices for program staff didn't follow university procedures and that some program funds had been misused.

Shultz declined to give specific examples in those areas, saying the newspaper wasn't the appropriate venue to debate legal facts with KU officials.

"(The lawsuit) is about her raising concerns about possible legal issues and ethical issues and her being terminated, or not reappointed, for having expressed those viewpoints," Shultz said.

The suit seeks Michaels' reappointment to her position and unspecified punitive damages.

Michaels, who declined comment on the lawsuit, is technically on the KU payroll until June 30, but she has been told not to come to work, Shultz said. Cathy Dwigans, a former program assistant with the Self program, has been hired to replace Michaels.

Program updates

Al Self said Tuesday he was unaware of the lawsuit, but denied having complained about the number of women in the program.

"Gender balance isn't a consideration," he said.

He did say, however, that he talks "periodically" with KU officials to get updates on the program.

"I'm very much interested in how the program is going," he said. "We continue to recruit and select particularly talented and motivated students who will assume important leadership roles in tomorrow's world, who we expect to make a real difference. That hasn't changed from the beginning."

Self declined to comment on why the program began excluding humanities and social and behavioral science majors, citing the lawsuit.

Several current Self fellows contacted Tuesday said the changes in the program hadn't affected them personally.

"The program this year doesn't seem different from the program last year," said Erin Burger, a chemistry major. "The politics of it all hasn't reached us. We've noticed the (staff) changes, but it hasn't affected us."

Matt Ramspott, a fellow in geography, said he disagreed with the decision to include only hard science majors -- no matter the reason behind the change.

"In my opinion I think the program suffers by not having the breadth of programs we had before the shift," he said. "Part of the strength of the program is the breadth of it, not so much having a narrow way of looking at things."

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