A federal judge has tossed out a reverse discrimination suit against Texas Southern University by a White faculty member who was terminated for his questionable handling of scholarship funds in a tuition-reduction program for out-of-state and international students.
Although criminal authorities decided not to prosecute Dr. Peter Dittmer, TSU’s internal investigation provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory basis to fire him, U.S. District Judge Gray Miller ruled last month.
Dittmer was a professor in the Airway Science Department, which offers degrees in aviation science management, and was co-coordinator of the department. His responsibilities included awarding merit-based scholarships.
At issue was his use of a “scholarship device” known as tuition rebate that let non-Texas students qualify for lower in-state tuition if they paid at least $1,000 into a scholarship fund, the judge said.
Under the program, students, in essence, self-funded their own scholarships by receiving an award equal to the amount they contributed, according to Assistant Attorney Gen. Erika Laremont, who represents TSU in the case.
At least one international student complained of paying money to Dittmer in exchange for scholarships but received less back than was paid in. Laremont said the amounts were as much as $1,500 to $2,000.
Laremont said TSU found no proof that Dittmer personally benefited, but “no one knew where the extra money went.”
Dittmer’s department head advised him to discontinue the practice.
TSU’s internal audit office found evidence of misconduct and the university changed its policy concerning out-of-state and foreign tuition waivers.
After the audit, the campus public safety department opened a fraud investigation and forwarded the case to the Harris County district attorney’s office, but prosecutors found no criminal violations. An investigator for the district attorney “determined that some students were given more money than others, but there was no evidence that Dittmer had kept any money for himself,” the court decision said.
Even so, the university terminated Dittmer. A faculty hearing committee said that penalty was too severe and recommended reinstatement, but President John Rudley rejected its recommendation.
The lawsuit against TSU, Rudley and a second university official alleged federal and state law violations, including due process and civil rights violations. In part, he claimed that non-white faculty members, including one of Asian descent, engaged in the same tuition-rebate practices but weren’t investigated or disciplined, and the suit called the investigation a “witch hunt.”
He sought reinstatement and damages.
In dismissing the suit, Miller said, “At the time TSU commenced the investigation, TSU had reason to believe not only that Dittmer engaged in the tuition-rebate practice but that there were discrepancies between the amounts donated and received by students.” No other professor was the subject of student complaints, he said, and there were no allegations of discrepancies between the amount of money that students donated and the benefits they received from non-white professors.
In addition, he said Dittmer’s violation of university policy regarding tuition waivers was a “legitimate non-discriminatory reason” for termination and there was no showing that TSU used that as a pretext for illegal discrimination based on race or color.
Dittmer’s lawyer did not return phone calls seeking comment, but Laremont says the time to appeal had run out.