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$600K for Fired Professor

January 26, 2007

Virginia State University has agreed to pay $600,000 to Jean R. Cobbs, whom it fired as a tenured professor in 2005 and whose claims against the university have been backed by several academic groups.

Cobbs and her supporters have said that she was dismissed for her political views (she is an outspoken black Republican at a historically black college where her views place her in a distinct minority) and for backing other professors (of a range of political views) in disputes with the Virginia State administration. In announcing the settlement of her case, the Virginia Association of Scholars -- one of the groups backing Cobbs -- said that information obtained by Cobbs's lawyer showed that the university's provost, W. Eric Thomas, replaced Cobbs with a woman with whom he is living.

A spokesman for Virginia State, to whom that statement and the announcement of the settlement were sent, declined to comment, saying that the university and its officials would not discuss litigation at any stage. Virginia State has faced a series of lawsuits over the last decade in which various professors have charged the institution with discrimination and unfair employment actions -- and Cobbs backed several of those.

The dismissal of Cobbs was among the cases that led the American Association of University Professors to censure Virginia State in 2005 for a post-tenure review process (used in her dismissal) that the association found lacking in due process and fairness. The association's investigation found that Cobbs was dismissed after a series of disputes, over several years, with the administration in which she criticized various decisions. In her post-tenure review, the AAUP found, she was denied the right to challenge unfair statements or a system of due process. The AAUP gives universities it investigates for possible censure the right to respond, and Virginia State never exercised that right, except to say that the association had made unspecified "errors" on which the university could not elaborate because of "legal considerations."

The federal lawsuit Cobbs filed -- which will be ended if a judge approves the settlement, as is expected -- charged Virginia State with violating its own procedures in a way that denied Cobbs due process.

Carey E. Stronach, president of the Virginia Association of Scholars, released a statement on the settlement in which he said: "We are most pleased that Dr. Cobbs received this favorable settlement after being defamed by the VSU administration for the past 12 years. The taxpayers of Virginia should not have to continue to pay damages for the ongoing misdeeds" of the university's leaders.

Cobbs taught sociology and social work at Virginia State for 33 years. She is currently working as a volunteer at a home for at-risk children.

In an interview Thursday night, she said she was "pleased that this has ended," and that she wished she could have defended herself at the university and stayed on there. She said that as part of the settlement talks, she was offered reinstatement, but that she couldn't go back when the administrators who fired her were still in charge. "There's not much for me to go back to," she said.

"When this kind of injustice goes on for years, your career is ruined, and the only thing you can try to do is be vindicated," she said. "I hope this will make it better for other individuals."

 

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