MADISON, Wis. — A trial expected to begin Monday will recall an ugly chapter at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, when two Black administrators were each demoted within months for misusing university credit cards.
The university removed its graduate studies dean, Dr. Lee Jones, after an investigation in 2005 found he repeatedly broke rules on travel and credit card spending. Months later, the university demoted Dr. Howard Ross from his 13-year position as dean of letters and sciences when an audit suggested he couldn’t account for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Both cases stung, coming as lawmakers were scrutinizing wasteful spending in the UW System and the southeastern Wisconsin school of 10,000 students was trying to improve diversity.
Ross has claimed he was the victim of a witch hunt and guilty at most of shoddy record keeping that is routine on campus. He claims he was treated unfairly by an auditor who once said she wished Black people were honest ‘ike Michael Jordan and by administrators angry that he questioned his treatment publicly.
His civil lawsuit alleging discrimination and retaliation by several university officials will be heard this week in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee.
Ross has continued to work as a professor of philosophy and religious studies at UW-Whitewater even as his lawyers have tried to expose the audit as flawed and prove White administrators with similar problems were excused and promoted.
What we’ll be talking with the jury about is the inequitable treatment of people, and the unfairness of the way they were administering the university,” said Ross’ attorney, Robert Kasieta. “Speaking as a taxpayer, I’m offended by what I saw happening at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.”
He said he has not decided how much money to ask jurors to award if Ross wins, but it should be enough to compensate for a damaged reputation that has cost Ross good jobs at other schools. He added that his legal fees are staggering after years of litigation.
Department of Justice lawyers representing the university are expected to argue the demotion was appropriate given Ross’ history of failing to comply with credit card policies.
“We are fully prepared to defend the UW and its actions with regard to Ross,” assistant attorney general Corey Finkelmeyer said.
Top university officials are expected to face uncomfortable questions on the witness stand.
Chancellor Dr. Richard Telfer, who was Ross’ and Jones’ boss as provost and was promoted to the top job in 2008, is expected to testify. So is Dr. Martha Saunders, the chancellor at the time of the investigations who left to become president at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007.
Telfer and Saunders are not accused of overt racism, but Ross claims they treated White administrators more favorably than him and Jones and did nothing when he complained about the auditor.
Telfer also might have to answer for why he didn’t take disciplinary action earlier against Ross despite being aware of his credit card problems. And Saunders may face questions over her own credit card spending, including hundreds of dollars she once charged for a spa treatment.
At its core, the trial will be about whether the investigation into how Ross used his university credit card was fair or motivated by race and retaliation.
The university released an audit report in 2006 that suggested Ross had either misspent or failed to account for $310,000 in spending dating to 2000. The report cited inappropriate spending on Yahoo personal ads, language classes, gifts and other items. The same day, Saunders removed Ross as dean, saying she had lost confidence in him.
University officials later reduced the amount of questionable spending to $117,000 after Ross provided more information. They acknowledged they believed the spending was largely for appropriate expenses but he lacked receipts and documentation.
U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller last year threw out the state’s counterclaim against Ross that sought to recover the money, citing a lack of evidence of misspending.
A key figure at trial will be the former campus auditor, Indra Mohabir, who is accused of making the comment about Michael Jordan while looking at a poster of the athlete in Jones’ office. She has acknowledged praising Jordan’s honesty, but denied it was racist.
Ross claims Mohabir harassed him during the audit, once barging into his office and rummaging through his bags and personal belongings.
An expert hired by Ross to review the audit is expected to testify that it departed significantly from university rules and professional standards governing higher education auditing. Kasieta said the shortcomings compromised the audit’s independence, which may have allowed racial bias to creep in. Mohabir has denied that.
Ross claims the audit was originally only meant to review six months of his spending, but its scope was expanded after he questioned Mohabir’s tactics and why the only two Black deans on campus were being audited during a 2005 interview with The Associated Press.
He will argue he delegated management of his credit card purchasing to associate dean Dr. Mary Pinkerton and she was responsible for the problems. His lawyers have noted that Pinkerton, who is White, was never disciplined and was promoted to dean after Ross was removed. She declined to comment.
Jones also filed a lawsuit claiming racial discrimination and later reached a nonmonetary settlement.