U. of Phoenix Accused of Religious Bias

EEOC lawsuit says college company favored enrollment officers with Mormon backgrounds over others.
September 29, 2006

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued the University of Phoenix for employment discrimination, charging the for-profit giant with favoring admissions counselors who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over those who do not.

Lawyers in the federal agency's regional office in Phoenix filed the lawsuit in federal district court in Phoenix on behalf of four current or former enrollment counselors at the university who said that they had been treated "less favorably" than Mormon peers in such things as who received the most promising enrollment leads, who was granted tuition waivers, and who was reprimanded for poor performance.

The lawsuit, which was first reported by the Arizona Republic, also alleges that Phoenix retaliated against the four men after they complained internally, transferring all of them and ultimately dismissing one of them. Mary Jo O'Neill, the EEOC's regional attorney in Phoenix, who filed the lawsuit, said that "many of the managers, the decision makers," at Phoenix are members of the Mormon church.

The EEOC lawsuit was filed as a class action, meaning that it seeks relief on behalf of any additional people who feel they may have been treated similarly. And O'Neill said in an interview Thursday that she had been besieged by telephone calls since the court filing from former Phoenix employees seeking to join the case.

"Never in my 20 years here have I gotten as many phone calls from potential class members as I have today," O'Neill said. "This is clearly striking a chord."

A spokeswoman for the university released this statement: "This lawsuit is not about religion, it is about an employer requiring employees to meet reasonable job expectations. While we respect an employee’s right to bring a claim of this nature we believe that once the facts surrounding this case are revealed it will clearly show that we have followed the law. University of Phoenix has thousands of employees and we’re committed to the principles of tolerance and respect. We maintain a strict anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy and take a zero-tolerance stance on such issues."

Phoenix, which has grown into one of the country's largest universities and is an imposing force in the adult education market, is owned by the Apollo Group, which is facing a series of legal challenges on multiple fronts. Several of the challenges revolve around its enrollment practices and whether they are overly aggressive.

O'Neill said the EEOC had based this lawsuit on an extensive investigation and filed it only after trying to resolve the case through negotiations with the company. The agency files lawsuits only after its officials have concluded that "it is more likely than not that discrimination happened," and only 15 percent of complaints filed with the agency end up in legal charges against employers.


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