Gathering in Los Angeles today for their annual meeting today, the members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities got an unwelcome surprise: a lawsuit in which the group's former president challenged the dismissal last fall that ended his brief tenure.
The firing in October of Edward O. Blews Jr. after just nine months in the council's top job perplexed many officials at the group's member colleges and at Washington's other higher education associations.
The council's brief statement said that after "careful investigation and prayerful consideration," its board had decided to "transition" Blews from the presidency.
The group's leaders declined any further comment on what had gone wrong, though its reference to an investigation left some observers under the impression that Blews had engaged in misconduct of some sort. And Blews also declined to respond to queries from reporters, including this one.
But he is no longer holding back. In a complaint filed Wednesday in federal court in Washington, Blews alleges that the the council breached its contract with him by, essentially, making it appear that it had fired him with cause to avoid paying him the nearly $2 million it would owe him for a dismissal without cause. He said he had filed the lawsuit after the council declined to resolve the dispute through mediation or in a "Christian manner" as his contract required.
"CCCU has no grounds for terminating Dr. Blews for cause," the complaint states. "It is simply trying to avoid paying Dr. Blews the payments he is contractually entitled to upon a unilateral termination without cause."
Blews's complaint offers his side of the untold story behind his abbreviated stint at the council.
He describes having been persuaded by CCCU leaders to take the job in early 2013, despite his reluctance to leave the job he'd held for 28 years at the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Michigan because of what he characterizes as concerns about "dysfunction" at CCCU and unhappiness among the council's employees.
Blews recounts the many problems he found at the council upon his arrival, and then being blindsided in late summer by a "devastating" report -- filled with what he calls "false statements" -- that repeatedly refer to his "intentional failure" to perform his duties. The complaint notes that his contract permits the council's board to fire him for cause if it finds "intentional failure by president to give his best efforts to perform his responsibilities." If it fires him for that reason, his contract states, the council owes him two years' salary and benefits -- but it has not paid him a dime since his dismissal, he alleges.
Former council employees offered a very different view of Blews's time at CCCU in interviews with Inside Higher Ed in recent months, describing him as out of his depth at the helm of a much larger organization than he had ever led before, and controlling to the point that numerous key employees left the council within months of his arrival. Blews's response to the council's report about him (which is attached to the complaint) described the situation as "toxic." (Blews also makes some allegations in his response about ethics issues at the council.)
Council officials did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but they provided a statement Thursday. It reads:
"The CCCU was surprised and disappointed to hear that Mr. Blews filed a lawsuit yesterday and then sent the complaint to news outlets, particularly since we had just recently agreed to the date he proposed for mediation of March 18. A Christian mediation process is required by his presidential contract before the filing of a lawsuit, and it is in keeping with our shared faith commitment to litigate only after exhausting all other options. The CCCU remains committed to the mediation process, but it also stands ready to defend its decision to make a presidential transition."
Which version of events comes closer to the truth may now be in a court's hands to judge.