The UNC system Board of Governors has been in the spotlight a lot recently, and not always in a positive way.
Now it has been linked in court papers to previously publicized allegations of racial discrimination at top levels of NCCU. The board has been added as a defendant in two lawsuits against the university that surfaced in the media in late May.
The original claims involved filings by three former employees (one case named NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White individually as a defendant), who alleged that they suffered from racial discrimination and that they lost their jobs, in the end, because they were not African-American.
There is also a related case against NCCU and the Board of Governors simmering at the N.C. Industrial Commission, where attorney Nicholas Sanservino Jr. and a client are arguing what I understand to be a novel claim in these types of cases: “negligence” under the state’s Tort Claims Act. The commission is mostly known for handling workers compensation.
In an August 2015 sworn affidavit, a former high-ranking director at the School of Business, Francis Marion Smith, lays it out. Smith, who is represented by Sanservino, of The Noble Law Firm, says the Board of Governors knew or should have known about what he calls unlawful discrimination and retaliation at NCCU, and “negligently failed to investigate and remedy the unlawful conduct taking place.”
Smith also wrote that Saunders-White and other NCCU employees have “negligently hired, retained, and/or supervised administrators … who unlawfully discriminate and retaliate against non-African-American employees like myself.”
Smith believes he’s owed damages that may exceed several hundred thousand dollars.
Then there’s the mystery letter. In late spring, court records say, plaintiffs’ attorney Sanservino used a public records request to obtain a copy of a typed letter in the board's possession with the heading, “Save NCCU from …” and the author(s) listed as “Friends of NCCU.” The two-page, typed document makes a series of broad and quite serious claims, including reference to “reverse discrimination.”
It appears the missive may have named names but they are blanked out in the released document in the file, occasionally in large swaths of white. I’m not sure why they have to be hidden from outside review.
In the Industrial Commission case so far, the negligence claim has survived attempts by the university to dismiss it. An issue that has drawn major attention there is a deposition, or rather, the lack of one.
The files show that Chancellor Saunders-White and her N.C. Office of the Attorney General (Department of Justice) lawyers have vigorously fought efforts to have the chancellor sit for formal questioning.
In a late October 2015 letter to the AG attorneys, Sanservino writes, “We remain perplexed,” he says, “about why the Defendants have gone to such great lengths to avoid producing even a single witness for deposition."
Not surprisingly, in one legal document, the AG’s office takes a dramatically different position. “Plaintiff’s attempt to depose Chancellor Saunders-White," it reads, “appears to be nothing more than a fishing expedition and/or designed to cause unreasonable annoyance, embarrassment, or undue cost and burden to the chief executive of NCCU.”
Meanwhile, another significant development: In September, the Durham court case that named the chancellor individually as a defendant was voluntarily dismissed “with prejudice,” which means the same claims cannot be re-filed later. One wonders what transpired.
That case, filed by Sanservino for Saunders-White’s former chief of staff Kimberly Luse, made a series of candid, attention-getting claims about the chancellor’s alleged coarse language toward and about Luse as well as the university.
I asked Sanservino if the dismissal meant a financial settlement was reached in the Luse matter, but there was no direct reply. In my view, it’s unfortunate that he is currently confining public utterance to legal filings only, and will not discuss or answer written questions I submitted on these incendiary and potentially important matters.
A written request for comment to the Attorney General’s office has so far gone unanswered.
To be clear: The files I’ve reviewed don’t show that any wrongdoing on the part of the NCCU chancellor, the university, or the UNC Board of Governors has been conceded or factually found to have occurred.
In October, Saunders-White announced she is being treated for kidney cancer.
If she agrees or is ordered to sit for a deposition in these combustible proceedings, perhaps we’ll be closer to some definitive answers, instead of allegations.
Tom Gasparoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-219-0042.