ST. LOUIS – A former white professor at the "historically" black Harris-Stowe State University (HSSU) in St. Louis has prevailed in an appeal challenging a jury award of nearly $5 million over her firing.
The Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District on June 6 upheld a finding in favor of Beverly Wilkins who was "marched to her car and off the campus" during summer session 2010 on grounds that she had engaged in "inappropriate activities," which the HSSU president claimed included telling her students that she had been discriminated against and was planning to sue.
At the time she was teaching summer classes, Wilkins was aware that she was going to be terminated as part of a reorganization effort due to a reduction in state funding, yet it later became known that HSSU planned to hire a replacement for her that was identified as "black" in reorganization papers, the ruling states.
The college also hired another African-American instructor to assume some of Wilkins' other duties, it states.
"In this period of budget-cutting, the net additional cost to HSSU for replacing Wilkins was approximately $23,000," the ruling states.
Her lawsuit against HSSU claimed that her termination violated the Missouri Human Rights Act in that the Board of Regents discriminated against her because of her race in terminating her annual teaching contract, which was $62,776 in salary and benefits during her last year.
She began teaching at HSSU in the Teacher Education Department in 2001. She also earned between $4,000 and $5,000 a year for teaching summer classes, the suit states.
In a second count of her suit, she claimed she was fired from her summer teaching assignment in retaliation for raising a race-discrimination claim.
Other background information included in the ruling states that in 2009, HSSU hired an interim dean for the Teacher Education Department, Dr. Latasha Smith, an African-American, whose role as dean would later be official.
At the time she was brought in, the complaint states a "faculty member" in the department sent an email to HSSU administrators indicating that Smith had repeatedly proclaimed her belief in "black power," and the faculty member claimed to be upset because the interim leader had openly expressed prejudice toward the individual and others.
The ruling further states that during the discovery phase of the case, the Board was ordered to preserve Smith's email account, but in violation of that order the board deleted the email account.
As a sanction for deleting the account, the trial court held that these allegations would be admitted: "Dr. Smith's email account contained statements expressing her desire to make the Teacher Education Department 'blacker' and that she recommended terminating Wilkin's employment."
The three-judge panel affirming the verdict in favor of Wilkins included Justices Kurt Odenwald and Gary Gaertner Jr. and Presiding Justice James Dowd.