A St. Louis Circuit Court jury has awarded a former Harris-Stowe State University instructor $4.85 million after finding that the historically black university discriminated against the instructor because she is white.
The suit, filed in 2012, zeroes in on one particular administrator, accusing her of subscribing to the “Black Power” mantra and working systematically to purge Harris-Stowe’s College of Education of white faculty.
The Missouri attorney general’s office, which represented Harris-Stowe, declined to comment on the verdict.
University officials also declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed, but Ronald Norwood, chairman of the Harris-Stowe State University Board of Regents, issued a statement calling the jury verdict “regrettable,” and leaving open the possibility of an appeal.
“The case is related to events that transpired in 2010,” Norwood said. “As a result of the recent changes in leadership and personnel, Harris-Stowe State University is now moving forward in writing a new and very exciting chapter in the history of this great university.”
The lawsuit alleges that Beverly Wilkins, who is white, was hired by the College of Education in 2001. In 2007, Latisha Smith, who is black, was hired to work in the same department. They both were full-time faculty members.
While Smith was quickly promoted to assistant dean, then dean and later into the interim co-chair of the department in her first three years at the university, Wilkins did not get promoted throughout her nine years at Harris-Stowe.
As dean of the College of Education, Smith dismissed Wilkins in 2010, blaming state budget cuts for the decision, the lawsuit says.
At the time, Harris-Stowe’s board had approved a reduction-in-force policy, which spelled out the procedures determining who is laid off and who is spared.
The lawsuit alleges that Harris-Stowe failed to follow its own policy when the school skipped over several black faculty members and dismissed Wilkins instead.
The lawsuit goes on to say that the entire department was purged of white faculty except one white instructor who was protected by tenure.
Conversely, the only black faculty member fired from the College of Education during the same time was not terminated because of the reduction-in-force policy, but rather because he was found to be a sex offender, the lawsuit says.
Wilkins’ lawyer, Michael Meyers, said Harris-Stowe systematically discriminated against white employees and then tried to cover it up by deleting emails.
One email that wasn’t lost was partly reproduced in the lawsuit. The email came from a black instructor who wrote that she was appalled by Smith’s blatant discriminatory behavior.
“I am floored to know that we have an interim leader that has voiced her prejudice so openly to me and others,” the email says. “This flagrant prejudice should not be tolerated or accepted.”
The lawsuit further states that at least “one high-ranking” Harris-Stowe official told the author of that email, “not to press these complaints or her ability to obtain tenure would be jeopardized.”
Meyers added that after his client was dismissed, Harris-Stowe started hiring new people, even as administrators complained of budget cuts.
“They hired a new professor to teach some of the same courses my client was teaching, and they paid the new professor $15,000 more,” Meyers said.
He added that the university also hired a part-time instructor to teach his client’s remaining courses, meaning Harris-Stowe dismissed one person and replaced her with two people at an increased cost of $23,000.
Meyers said his client is not granting media interviews.
The jury’s decision Friday to award Wilkins $3.5 million in punitive damages and $1.35 million for lost wages and emotional distress is not final. It can be upheld or changed by a judge.