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HEDGEPETH CONTINUES DISCRIMINATION SUIT AGAINST WSSU

by Daniel Schere

daniel@yesweekly.com | @Daniel_Schere

Shira Hedgepeth, the former Winston-Salem State University Faculty member who was fired from her position as Director of Academic Technology in 2011, is taking her case to the United States Middle District Court of North Carolina. In the latest chapter of a three-year legal battle, Hedgepeth named Chancellor Donald Reaves, Provost Brenda Allen and former Associate Provost Justin McKenzie as defendants in a complaint filed on November 10 asking for a jury trial.

Hedgepeth has alleged that her termination was based on racial grounds because she was a white employee at a historically black university. This latest complaint comes three months after she was given a “right to sue” letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission due to her filing of a charge of discrimination.

According to the university’s equal employment and non-discrimination policies, “race, color, national origin, creed, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, veteran status, disability, genetic information or political affiliation, except where religion, sex or age are bona fide job-related employment requirements.” This is based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as other federal laws. Roughly one-quarter of Winston-Salem State’s faculty is white, with blacks making up about 65 percent.

Hedgepeth was hired in 2008 as an instructional technologist where she worked with departments to integrate a greater use of technology into courses. Her duties included educating faculty and students on Blackboard and Web 2.0 as well as the use of the lecture software Panopto. After two years she was given a promotion and the additional responsibilities of directing two learning seminars for two semesters and supervised other faculty on implementing new technology systems.

During her time at Winston-Salem State, Hedgepeth spoke out several times against what she said was an effort by the administration to lower academic standards in order to raise students’ grades and maintain a respectable graduation rate. In a July 17, 2013 editorial published by the Pope Center For Higher Education, she writes, “Many stated that they were under pressure to decrease the material in the courses and increase the passing rates. They feared that they would be released if they didn’t. Other faculty members expressed concern that students were held to different standards depending on their race. Some said that they thought school officials were changing grades they had entered.” Hedgepeth also writes that she observed cheating firsthand and reported it to her supervisor, but was told not to take any action. It is not clear whether this played a role in her firing.

Hedgepeth was terminated on July 8, 2011 without being given an explanation, she says. She appealed the decision to several bodies including a non-discriminatory hearing panel at the university, Chancellor Reaves and the board of trustees. All three upheld the firing.

In her charge of racial discrimination, Hedgepeth goes into detail about several encounters she had with officials at the university, including those with Antoinette Moore–an IT employee who Hedgepeth said was hostile specifically toward her but not toward any African American employees. Hedgepeth said that Moore’s tone and body language would often change when talking with her, and Moore would often refuse to perform tasks Hedgepeth assigned her. She met with McKenzie three times to discuss her concerns about Moore’s job performance, but was met with skepticism each time. After another employee was terminated, she decided not to speak out any more.

Hedgepeth has also alleged that she was put in a hostile work environment. Following her termination she says she was not able to access documents in preparations for the appeals process, was detained by university officials and was forbidden from speaking to anyone about the dismissal. She says that despite being given a 60-day severance package that paid her for 240 hours of vacation time, she was not paid for any work done between September 26, 2010 and February 15, 2011.

In her complaint, Hedgepeth has requested to be compensated for all of the time she was not paid as Director of Academic Technologies and awarded additional damages for emotional trauma she says consumed her following her employment at the university.

Her case was heard by the Forsyth County Superior Court in 2012 and the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2013, both of which dismissed it. No court date has been set for her current lawsuit. If the case does eventually go to trial, Judge Catherine Eagles will preside. !

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