Gender Bias Alleged -- Again -- at Florida Gulf Coast

Former provost sues in part over sexually demeaning comments that she says ex-president made and in part for way she says allegations of discrimination were handled.
June 8, 2009

The former provost at Florida Gulf Coast University last week sued the university, alleging gender discrimination, sexual intimidation and retaliation by top-level officials – including the university’s former president. The federal lawsuit is the latest in a string the university has faced in recent years, mostly pertaining to gender equity disputes in the athletic department.

But according to the complaint filed on behalf of Bonnie Yegidis, the former provost, the university’s hostility toward women extends beyond its compliance issues with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Yegidis, who served as provost at Florida Gulf Coast from 2004 to 2007, begins her grievances with former president William Merwin, whom she claims made inappropriate and degrading comments to her about her physical appearance – at one time saying she showed “too much boob.” Merwin has denied making such comments. Even after Merwin resigned in January 2007, however – having admitted to an affair with a female professor – Yegidis says a hostile work environment persisted.

Florida Gulf Coast's spokeswoman, Susan Evans, said the university has not been served with a lawsuit on behalf of Yegidis and "has no comment at this time on the pending litigation." Merwin could not be reached for comment, but he told local reporters he had received numerous comments about Yegidis' choice of attire around the office.

Some of the allegations involve what happened when Merwin quit. In the same meeting Yegidis learned of Merwin’s resignation, she was also informed that Richard Pegnetter, a dean in the College of Business, had been chosen as interim president, despite Yegidis’ position as second to the president for the three years prior. When she approached the chairman of the Board of Trustees to express concern that she had been wrongfully overlooked, Yegidis says she was directed to take her grievances up with the interim president. Instead, she filed a discrimination complaint with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs.

A few months later, according to the lawsuit, the university’s general counsel, Wendy Morris, told Yegidis that the former interim athletic director at Florida Gulf Coast had filed a letter with the interim president complaining about the university’s noncompliance with Title IX requirements. Yegidis asked the interim president to see the letter but was instead informed that Morris would be disciplined for “interfering with… directives regarding the appropriate level of review” of the athletic director’s letter.

Morris was subsequently fired, and in the fall of last year settled for $800,000 a lawsuit in which she charged the university with unlawful gender discrimination and attempting to cover up illegal gender inequity in the athletic department. Her settlement became effective less than a month before the university settled with two more former employees alleging sex discrimination, retaliation and defamation. Former volleyball coach Jaye Flood was awarded $2.965 million and former women’s golf coach Holly Vaughn was awarded $435,000. The university admitted no wrongdoing in any of the settlements.

In the time between Morris’ termination and her eventual settlement with the university, though, Yegidis says she repeatedly informed top-level university officials that Morris’ firing – and the treatment of women at the university – was unlawful. Yegidis said she was assured things would change under the leadership of the new president, Wilson Bradshaw; instead, she says, she found quite the opposite to be true.

In one of her first meetings with the new president, in the fall of 2007, Yegidis was told she needed to submit her resignation as provost and vice president of academic affairs.

“[Yegidis] complained to Bradshaw that she was being treated unfavorably because of her advocacy on behalf of women. Bradshaw responded that he wanted her ‘out by Friday,’ ” the complaint reads. “As directed, [Yegidis] submitted her letter of resignation which was involuntary and forced upon her by the President.”

Instead of accepting the “voluntary demotion” asked of her, the complaint continues, Yegidis accepted a position at the University of Tennessee, where she has been serving as vice president for academic affairs and student success since July 2008.

The damages Yegidis is seeking include front pay, back pay, unpaid benefits, attorney’s fees and a court order forcing the university take whatever steps necessary to comply with Title IX.

While the university is not commenting at this time, it is no secret that this latest lawsuit comes in the wake of Florida Gulf Coast’s attempts to clear its muddied reputation regarding gender issues – especially following Morris’ lawsuit. Among her own personal grievances, Morris noted in her complaint that “it was open season on women at the university.”

A stipulation in Morris’ settlement prohibits both Morris and members of the university Board of Trustees from commenting on the settlement or disparaging each other in any way.

Among the university officials who have left Florida Gulf Coast because of sexually inappropriate conduct or in the wake of sexual discrimination allegations are Merwin, who resigned in 2007 after confessing to an inappropriate relationship with a professor, and athletic director Carl McAloose, who resigned two days following the $3.4 million payout to two former female coaches. Pegnetter, former interim president, submitted his resignation as dean of the business school shortly after the litigious crossfire but has since decided to stay on through January 2011 when his contract expires. Pegnetter said his retirement plans were not predicated on the sexual discrimination settlements -- but did file his own complaint.

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