President Sues College Over Departure, Pay

Ex-president of Indiana's Saint Mary’s College says board chair forced her out and that college has reneged on faculty job it promised.

March 15, 2019
 
Janice Cervelli

Five months after resigning abruptly under a shroud of mystery, the former president of Indiana's Saint Mary’s College is suing the institution, saying she was forced out by the head of the Board of Trustees and that the college has refused to pay her what she's owed.

In a lawsuit, Janice Cervelli alleges that the board chair, Mary Burke, pressed for her “immediate resignation,” apparently with the support of other board members “who were in cahoots with her.”

Cervelli also asserts in the complaint that the college hasn’t lived up to an agreement to allow her to stay on as a tenured faculty member -- and has basically done what it could to chase her off campus.

In a statement, the college said it had honored all of its agreements with Cervelli and has fulfilled all of its obligations to her. But a copy of the separation agreement between the college and Cervelli, made public as part of the legal complaint, shows the college committing to giving her a year's severance and a tenured faculty position at the compensation level of the college's highest-paid faculty member, neither of which Cervelli says she has received. College officials declined to comment beyond the initial statement.

Saint Mary’s announced Cervelli’s resignation in a cryptic open letter sent Oct. 5 to the South Bend Tribune. In it Burke offered no explanation but said Cervelli would be replaced by Provost Nancy Nekvasil.

A South Bend, Ind., native, Cervelli became president of Saint Mary’s in June 2016.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Indiana, doesn’t elucidate the mystery surrounding her dismissal, asserting that the college had given Cervelli two favorable reviews previously and offered no reason at the time for what Cervelli asserts was a termination. It notes that in late September, Burke presented her with an undated and unsigned separation agreement and said the board was calling for her immediate resignation. There’s no indication, according to the complaint, that the required two-thirds of the board had indicated they wanted her to step down.

She also says Burke suggested she publicly lie about the reason for the termination: Cervelli, she said, should tell people she was resigning because her mother “needed more care,” which was untrue.

In the lawsuit, Cervelli also says that Burke lied when she told the Tribune that Cervelli resigned “due to reasons she chose not to disclose.” Burke also told the newspaper that the resignation “came as a surprise” when Cervelli called her “to convey the news.”

Cervelli says Burke also lied when she told the Tribune that she had asked Cervelli if “there was something we could do” to keep her at the college. Cervelli says no such conversation took place.

She also claims in the lawsuit that the college has backed out of an agreement to retain Cervelli as a tenured faculty member with full salary, with a promise to pay her “in an amount equal to the highest-paid professor” at the college. The college also agreed to give her severance pay and benefits for a year beginning in January. The agreement, part of a settlement signed by both sides, stated that the college was to begin paying Cervelli a full professor's salary beginning in February. The lawsuit even mentions an email from the director of human resources, who gave Cervelli a breakdown of every professor's salary, from highest to lowest paid.

The college hasn’t paid Cervelli anything from the agreement, the lawsuit claims. Saint Mary's has also hired new “visiting and junior faculty” in Art and Environmental Studies, she alleges, “superseding its obligation to Cervelli as a sitting tenured full professor.” And it has yet to find teaching, service or research assignments for her -- or to provide her with an office.

In addition, the lawsuit says, Saint Mary's has excluded her from the faculty roster and removed her from a faculty email Listserv, “thus banning her from receiving emails containing important announcements regarding college policies, events and faculty development opportunities.”

It has also monitored her “movements and statements on campus.” The lawsuit didn’t provide further details.

The college declined to make Burke available for an interview, but in a statement on behalf of the college, she said the board "is aware of, but not surprised by," the lawsuit.

"We obviously disagree with the allegations raised by Ms. Cervelli’s lawyers, their descriptions of the agreements and their account of the facts," Burke said. "The trustees have honored all of its agreements with Ms. Cervelli and [have] fulfilled all of its obligations to Ms. Cervelli as a tenured member of Saint Mary’s College faculty.”

Burke said the board looks forward to responding to the lawsuit in court "and ultimately resolving this matter with finality."

Raymond Cotton, Cervelli's lawyer, said in an interview, “It’s very regrettable that the situation has gotten to a point where all of this misbehavior has had to be divulged in legal documents. I would have strongly preferred that the parties had worked out their differences behind the scenes and not let it get to the point that it has gotten to.”

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