Texas Southern Fails in Bid to Stop Discrimination Suit - Higher Education
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Texas Southern Fails in Bid to Stop Discrimination Suit

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by Eric Freedman

Dannye Holley

Dean Dannye Holley is alleged to have started a racially motivated campaign to force out his former student Patricia Garrison, an assistant dean.

A White assistant dean at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law can pursue her Title VII employment discrimination and retaliation claims, a federal judge in Houston has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison rejected the university’s bid to throw out the suit by Patricia Garrison, an alumna of the law school who was appointed assistant dean for academic support in 2007.

Garrison still holds the position, but her lawyer, Katherine Butler of Houston, said, “It becomes increasingly difficult. Nobody wants to be in the position of suing their employer.”

“There will be a trial,” Butler said.

Garrison had received strong performance reviews by Dean McKen Carrington, who hired her, but the suit contends that current Dean Dannye Holley began a racially motivated campaign to force her out after his interim appointment in 2009. Holley was a longtime TSU faculty member, and Garrison had been one of his students.

“Texas Southern University treated one of the hardest working employees in its law school poorly for one reason and one reason only — she is Caucasian,” Garrison’s court complaint says. “It denied this woman compensation she earned, stripped her of job duties she was performing well and steadfastly put up roadblocks in an attempt to make her life so difficult that she would resign.”

After Holley rejected Garrison’s attempt to hold an underperforming Black subordinate accountable, he told her, “If you do not wish to work for me, you have options, and I suggest you begin to consider them,” the complaint says.

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The university denies any discrimination and asserts in court papers that all its actions regarding Garrison’s “employment status and working conditions were the result of legitimate, non-discriminatory business decisions.”

Eva Pickens, the associate vice president for communications, said, “The university has and continues to deny it has acted in a discriminatory way toward Patricia Garrison. TSU takes very seriously the claims made by Ms. Garrison against the university, and intends to vigorously defend itself against these baseless allegations.”

Pickens said that the university “prides itself on its rich heritage and in having one of the nation’s most diverse faculties and student bodies. The TSU culture is built on its policies and procedures which are intended to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.”

The complaint alleges that Holley has micromanaged her duties, undercut her authority over subordinate employees and denied her the support and resources that African-American assistant and associate deans have. It also alleges that the law school refused to pay a promised $5,000 to teach a semester-long bar exam essay course although she’d previously been paid to teach it beyond her regular duties.

The university counters that the teaching payments Garrison received were a discretionary bonus under the prior dean and that Holley chose to discontinue that practice.

In his decision, Ellison said there are several factual issues for a jury to decide at trial. For example, there was evidence that Black full-time administrators continue to receive extra compensation for teaching.

He also said a jury could decide that race was a motivating factor in Holley’s reducing Garrison’s responsibilities—and thus demoting her—although her salary wasn’t cut.

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“A demotion can simply be a new role that is objectively worse, such as being less prestigious or providing less room for advancement. The job duties that Garrison alleges she lost are not insubstantial, and in total they could amount to a demotion,” Ellison said.

About two weeks after Ellison ruled against TSU, the university filed a new motion to toss out Garrison’s claim of racial discrimination and retaliation for failure to promote her to be the law school’s executive director of academic assessment. In its court papers, TSU argues that Garrison did not meet the minimum qualifications for the job due to insufficient higher education teaching and assessment experience.

An outside consultant screened the applicants and did not choose Garrison as a finalist, the university said.

“There was simply nothing about her resume that demonstrated she had the necessary skill set for the position of executive director,” the university said. Holley named an African-American professor who had been appointed on an interim basis before the law school posted the position.

Trial is scheduled March 4, 2013, according to Pickens, who said TSU “will vigorously defend itself in this court proceeding. The university firmly believes it will prevail on the merits of its defenses raised in this litigation.”

Garrison’s lawyer, Baker, said she is preparing her response to TSU’s new motion.

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