Departure With a Message

Dean at Brandman University says she lost her job for fighting harassment in the workplace -- and that she turned down a buyout that would have required her to stay quiet.

August 22, 2018
Christine Zeppos

Many a dean leaves the position amid some disagreements with higher-ups, and with a polite announcement about returning to faculty duties. But Christine Zeppos isn't such a departing dean. She posted to Facebook her view that she was forced out of her position at Brandman University after advocating for a harassment-free workplace.

Before her employment as dean of the School of Education was terminated Friday, Zeppos said, the university first offered her a severance package and the opportunity to resign if she agreed to confidentiality. She said no and chose instead to speak up about what she described as "culture of gender bias, discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation and defamation" at Brandman.

Zeppos spent eight years at Brandman, a private college in Irvine, Calif., and part of the Chapman University system, before she was fired Friday. In a Facebook post, Zeppos wrote that the decision to terminate her employment was made in late July, and she believed it was a result of her “vocal insistence that women at the university be afforded a harassment-free environment, as well as the same HR processes and practices afforded to our male colleagues -- particularly in higher levels.”

She is currently planning to file a complaint in state court to challenge the university's decision. Joseph Preis is representing Zeppos, and wrote in an email that he believes the outcome of the case will be "reinstatement, damages and a positive change to the environment and culture" at Brandman.

It was unusual for Preis, who usually represents defendants, to take on Zeppos's case. "We take on a select few (very few) plaintiff cases in an effort to effect positive change where there is a demonstrably acute need for that change," Preis wrote in an email.

Preis and Zeppos declined to discuss specifics of her allegations.

Brandman University denied Zeppos's allegations in the statement below.

“Brandman University is deeply committed to providing an inclusive, welcoming environment for our students and faculty which emphasizes respect for all individuals regardless of race, gender, age, religion, sexual or gender orientation. We take any allegation contrary to this commitment extremely seriously,” the statement read. “We regularly follow a specific and thorough process for investigating claims that includes independent, third-party review, in accordance with our published Code of Ethics, Equal Employment Opportunity and Title IX policies. We categorically deny the allegations being made against the university and stand behind a process that was both fair and thorough. Preserving an environment of inclusion is essential to fulfilling our mission as a university and we will continue to work to ensure that all students and faculty are welcome and treated with the respect they deserve.”

Gary Brahm, Brandman University chancellor, echoed the statement in an email to Brandman faculty and staff.

“While we appreciate the contributions that Dean Zeppos made during her tenure, the decision to replace Dr. Zeppos was made following a very thorough, independent, third-party review,” he wrote. “We categorically deny the allegations being made against the university and fully stand behind the process that led to this decision.”

Several other former and current Brandman employees, who wish to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, spoke with Inside Higher Ed and agreed with Zeppos's descriptions of gender bias, discrimination and hostility among Brandman's leadership. They also named other current and former employees who had experienced discrimination or been forced out of their positions in instances similar to Zeppos's.

Brahm declined to comment on the anonymous allegations and did not answer questions about whether the university has plans to change the work environment or culture.

Zeppos hopes that Daniele Struppa, Chapman University president, and the Board of Regents will re-examine the situation.

“I have faith that the Board of Regents, and specifically Chapman President Daniele Struppa, will take a close look at this situation (now that he is aware) and perhaps ensure that justice prevails,” Zeppos wrote in her Facebook post.​

A petition calling for Zeppos’s reinstatement has been circulating on social media. Nearly 300 supporters had signed it as of Tuesday evening.

“Brandman University needs to recognize how this decision impacts their reputation and the retention and recruitment of students. The values Brandman purports do not match their actions against Dr. Zeppos,” the petition read. “Please sign and share this petition to show our solidarity and support for Dr. Zeppos. We demand reinstatement at the same position or higher with the same compensation and authority as Dr. Zeppos’ male counterparts.”


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