Douglas County’s new district attorney placed on leave by KU over conduct related to pay dispute; Valdez withheld grades, accuses KU of retaliation

photo by: Contributed Photo

Suzanne Valdez was elected to serve as Douglas County district attorney in November 2020.

Story updated at 6:06 p.m. Monday:

Douglas County’s new district attorney has been placed on leave — and may be fired — from her teaching job at the University of Kansas’ law school, after the university criticized her for improperly withholding the final grades of students as leverage in a pay dispute she has with KU.

Suzanne Valdez — who was sworn in as the county’s district attorney on Monday morning — counters that KU is discriminating against her for past comments that have been critical of how the university conducts its business, especially on matters of equity and investigation of sexual assault cases.

Valdez on Monday morning said she would not let her dispute with KU become a distraction in her new job as the county’s top criminal prosecutor.

“It is my goal to do my job,” Valdez said “I’m going to focus on that. The community has elected me, and that is going to be my focus.”

The dispute centers on $7,500 that Valdez said she was due from the university for teaching a course called State Court Practice at the KU law school. Valdez contends the $7,500 payment should be made over and above her standard salary as the school’s Connell Teaching Chair and clinical professor of law, as part of a previous settlement agreement regarding her compensation.

Valdez acknowledged that she withheld posting the final grades for the class for about 20 hours after she learned that KU had taken a position that she wasn’t due the $7,500 payment. In an email to her students on Jan. 6, she apologized that they were getting caught up in the dispute, calling it an “unfortunate teaching moment.” She told the Journal-World that while related to the dispute, she didn’t see the delay in posting grades as leverage, and that her students supported her.

“This was a teaching moment,” Valdez said. “We had talked in my course about contract disputes and how sometimes you have innocent parties who are caught up in it, and it was a good example of it. And I was making a point.”

A KU spokesman on Monday did not specifically comment on the university’s reasons for suspending Valdez, which came with a warning that she may be terminated from her KU position. However, the university highlighted its disappointment that students had been involved in the dispute.

“This is a personnel matter, and as such the university is not able to discuss the details,” said Joe Monaco, associate vice chancellor of public affairs for KU. “That said, it is unfortunate that Professor Valdez has chosen to publicly misrepresent the circumstances of this matter. It is even more unfortunate that she chose to involve her students in her own personal dispute with her employer. The university will always act in the best interests of our students. We look forward to resolving this matter with Professor Valdez in a professional manner.”

Valdez said she did apologize to her students for the delay in posting their grades. But on Monday she said she did not regret the decision, and in an email she sent to her students on Jan. 6 — the day grades were due — she said the law school’s dean “forced her hand,” and that the dean “bears full responsibility for this situation.”

Valdez said she did eventually post the final grades, after realizing that the delay in grades was impacting the final ranking of students in the entire law school. When asked whether there was another method spelled out in university procedures for her to resolve the dispute — such as a grievance process — Valdez said there was no “prescribed” method for the dispute to be resolved. Valdez said the “ad hoc” process hasn’t worked for her or others.

“You always try to talk to KU, you try to be reasonable, you try to explain yourself, but you know what, they’re not listening,” Valdez said. “They don’t listen and I am just one of many people who have had this experience and I’m just not backing down.”

Monaco did not address the contention about the grievance process when asked about it by the Journal-World.

Various KU policies list grievance procedures for a variety of issues, but it wasn’t immediately clear which body would have jurisdiction regarding a dispute or grievance over a faculty member’s pay. According to the University Senate Rules and Regulations, the Faculty Rights Board shall hear disputes involving faculty members and the rights included in the Code of Faculty Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct, including academic freedom, tenure rights, and dismissal, among others, but the code does not specifically mention pay disputes. The code does state that faculty members have the right to utilize applicable grievance procedures without retaliation.

The University Senate Rules and Regulations, which apply to faculty, staff and students, lay out general procedural guarantees for grievances, but state that because of the great variations in size and functions of “units,” standardization of grievance procedures is considered inappropriate. Various departments have grievance procedures listed in the university’s policy library. The school of law has a “dispute resolution policy” for handling disputes “within the law school.”

The previous settlement agreement — which includes nondisparagement agreements from both parties — regarding Valdez’s pay was arrived at following a discrimination complaint Valdez brought against the university regarding her salary and other compensation, as well as determinations of her course load and teaching assignments, according to the agreement. The university denied such discrimination, and the agreement states KU’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access investigated the matter and found no unlawful discrimination had occurred. The agreement states the university and Valdez agreed it was in their mutual interest to resolve the issues. The agreement includes a revised base salary with back pay, back “overload” payment for courses taught beyond her usual course load, and sets Valdez’s course load and overload assignment for the 2020 and 2021 academic years. For fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the agreement calls for Valdez to receive her annual base salary plus $7,500 for overload assignments.

Valdez, who is Latina, said KU’s actions regarding the disagreement as to whether she is owed the $7,500 have been in retaliation for her criticism of KU. She said that includes issues of pay disparities and other equity issues at the university, as well as how the university handles investigations of sexual assault. Valdez said the fact that she is a corroborating witness in a recent lawsuit filed against KU is probably another reason. As the Journal-World reported in October, a woman who was charged in January 2019 with filing a false report of rape has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Lawrence, multiple Lawrence police officers and the university.

Valdez said she has been bullied for the issues she said she tried to raise, and that she thinks everything has culminated in the dispute about the $7,500 payment.

“Because I have been vocal about treatment of the marginalized community at KU, which includes faculty, staff and students,” Valdez said. “I speak up for myself as a Latina professor. Women are treated horribly in terms of pay equity. All of these things I’ve been trying to bring to their attention.”

Valdez on Monday said she was confident she would have no problem working with KU in her official capacity as district attorney. She said she did not blame KU as whole, but rather said her situation is about a “few people who have made poor decisions for the university.” Valdez has worked for the university for 20 years.

However, Valdez said she does plan to take steps as district attorney to further hold KU accountable on safety matters, specifically mentioning sexual assault.

“That’s why I’m in this office because, you know what, we’ve got to be accountable,” she said.

She said her office’s efforts would include creating a student advisory board and would keep student safety as a high priority from a prosecution standpoint.

Valdez, a Democrat, won a three-way primary race for the district attorney position in August. She did not face a Republican challenger in the November election. She has said she plans to greatly cut back on her teaching duties at the KU law school, but had not committed to leaving the faculty there.




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