Faculty trustee's legal battles involving University of Kentucky raise questions

Irina voro and her husband have taken UK, colleagues to court

lblackford@herald-leader.comNovember 20, 2011 

Irina Voro, the faculty trustee on the UK board, at her office in the UK Fine Arts building in Lexington, Ky. Thursday August 11, 2011. Photos by Brooke DiDonato | Staff

BROOKE DIDONATO | STAFF

The University of Kentucky's newest faculty trustee and her husband have a history of legal battles involving UK that has raised questions about whether she can represent faculty effectively.

Irina Voro, a concert pianist and popular teacher, twice sued a fellow professor unsuccessfully for defamation beginning in 2003. Her husband, Andrei Vorobiev, filed a lawsuit against then-President Lee T. Todd Jr., a UK police officer and a UK public relations employee for conspiracy, assault and battery.

Vorobiev's lawsuit, the dismissal of which is now on appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court, stems from an incident in 2005 in which he was escorted from the Patterson Office Tower after a Board of Trustees meeting.

The lawsuits, filed in Fayette Circuit Court, were not widely discussed during Voro's campaign in the spring to become a watchdog faculty trustee who would hold UK's administration accountable. However, statements made by her husband in one court document suggest the lawsuits might affect Voro's actions as a trustee.

In Vorobiev's petition for a rehearing at the Kentucky Court of Appeals this summer, he speaks to his wife's election as a trustee. As "one of the bosses of the new UK president," Voro could make the president investigate the "felonies" alleged in his lawsuit and "remove the other protagonists of this shameful case," he wrote.

Former trustee Steve Reed, who was board chairman during some of the legal battles, said Voro's past personal battles with UK could color her judgment as a trustee.

"When you have someone with a history with a personal vendetta, a history of acrimony with the university that pertains to them uniquely, that is a recipe for a problem, and that's unfortunate," Reed said. "This person will have to work hard to make sure she represents the interest of the faculty and not just herself."

Since joining the trustees in the spring, Voro has made waves as she researched the complex problem of administrative bloat. Among other things, she asked the board to hire its own lawyer and polled faculty to see if she should ask the board to cut a senior vice president's position.

Board of Trustees chairman Britt Brockman said the litigation could be a conflict for Voro's work on the board, not a conflict of interest from which she personally benefits, but one in which her personal experiences might get in the way of her work.

"I think all of us would have an expectation that board members would approach their jobs without personal agendas or bias," said Brockman, who declined to comment specifically on the litigation.

"I welcome dialogue, I welcome disagreements, but there's a civil way to do it and there's a way to do it without a personal agenda," he said. "Who do you represent? That's what it boils down to."

Others suggest Voro is being held to a different standard than other trustees because she has raised thorny issues.

"Obviously Irina's ... a fly in the ointment right now," said Ernie Yanarella, a political science professor and former faculty trustee. "There is probably considerable irritation among a number of people, particularly among those on the executive committee of the board. So somebody pushes back."

Voro and Vorobiev, who has worked at UK in the past, declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the Herald-Leader's lack of interest in Vorobiev's lawsuit in the years before Voro became a trustee.

Voro and Vorobiev questioned the ability of the paper to write a fair story.

In response to a series of written questions, Voro wrote in an email: "Unfortunately, your questions contain spurious presumptions but omit any hint of your interest (if any) in the important facts that other candidates for the faculty trustee seat did not disclose. That is either intentionally sloppy or biased on your part.

"Based on this, there will be no interview and your written questions will not be answered."

Defamation lawsuits

Irina Voro came to UK in 1999 as a concert pianist who continued to perform while teaching UK's piano students. She won a campuswide award for teaching in 2005 and was named a "Teacher Who Made a Difference" in 2011. She also was named Teacher of the Year by the Kentucky Music Teachers' Association in 2004.

Voro is now a full professor with tenure.

She has not always been as popular with some of her colleagues, according to the stacks of court documents that begin in November 2003, when she and Vorobiev sued Alan Hersh, another piano professor at UK, for defamation.

The lawsuit stemmed from a piano competition at UK in 2002, won by a student of Hersh. According to court documents, several students wrote a letter to UK administrators, saying the competition was "apparently fixed."

Hersh sent an email on Nov. 21, 2002, to Harry Clarke, music school director, asking for an investigation into who instigated the letter. In the email, which is included in court documents, Hersh said he had received secondhand information that Voro had encouraged the letter writing.

"I have Dr. Voro's instigation of this as only secondhand information, but if this indeed be the case, then I want to suggest that Dr. Voro has acted in an unprofessional, indeed, unethical manner and the ethics of the situation should be investigated by appropriate University authorities," Hersh wrote in the email.

The email also noted that the only person who attended all of the competition's performances was Andrei Vorobiev.

"Mr. Voro has been known to create situations like this before, and if he indeed was the instigator of this divisiveness, then I similarly suggest that appropriate measures be pursued," Hersh wrote.

In a sworn affidavit on Dec. 10, 2004, Hersh said then-Dean Robert Shay had asked Vorobiev "to stay out of the Fine Arts Building because he was constantly making demands for his wife, Irina Vorobieva, and otherwise instigating issues between students and faculty."

Voro and Vorobiev, who both were party to the lawsuit, said in court documents that the email was "defamatory" and "calculated to cause great injury to the plaintiffs' reputation." The suit said Hersh acted with malice because he knew his accusations were "untrue."

Before the first lawsuit could be resolved, Voro and her husband filed another one against Hersh.

In that suit, filed Feb. 23, 2004, Voro contended Hersh had defamed her in an email he wrote to a professor at Baylor University, where Voro apparently was interviewing for a job.

In that Feb. 20, 2003, email, which is in the court file, Hersh called Voro's hiring a "mixed blessing," as Voro is a "serious pianist who works hard at her playing," a professor with a "loyal following among many of her students," and someone whose "knowledge of music is encyclopaedic."

"I think her liabilities are related to the clash of musical and academic cultures, her rigid conception of who she is and what she does, her frequent unreliability in important matters — an opera coach/colleague who plays for Kathleen Battle calls it 'high maintenance,' and her frequently unpleasant relationships with colleagues," Hersh wrote in the email.

Voro again claimed defamation, which exposed her to "hatred, ridicule, contempt or disgrace," according to court documents.

Fayette Circuit Judge James Ishmael dismissed the second suit April 22, 2004, because the court agreed that the plaintiffs "failed to prove any defamatory language" in the email to Baylor. In addition, the statute of limitations had passed.

In November 2005, Ishmael dismissed the first lawsuit as well, saying there was no proof of malice by Hersh.

The couple appealed it to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, where the suit was also dismissed.

Hersh, now retired, declined to comment on the two cases. His defense was provided by the law firm Walther Roark & Gay and cost about $40,000, money that came out of the College of Fine Arts' budget.

Assault accusations

Andrei Vorobiev filed another lawsuit after an incident that occurred Sept. 20, 2005, shortly after a UK Board of Trustees meeting.

According to court documents filed by Vorobiev, he attended the meeting in the Patterson Office Tower, where he looked disapproving at news of a big bonus for Todd, then the UK president.

After the meeting, Vorobiev said he was trying to reach a Herald-Leader reporter who was talking to Todd when Carl Nathe, a UK public relations employee, approached.

"'Can I help you?' he asked with chilling coldness in his voice and eyes," Vorobiev wrote in a police report he filed at UK in 2010.

UK police officer Alan Saylor asked to see Vorobiev's ID. After Saylor checked his ID, Vorobiev said in the police report that Saylor snatched it back, saying, "It's mine now!"

Vorobiev then said he tried to find trustee Steve Reed.

"The rest was as awful as anything that's ever happened to me," Vorobiev wrote in the report. "Hissing 'I've had enough of you!' officer Saylor grabbed me by my right shoulder and with the fierce force shoved me into the opposite side of the building. ... It was a miracle I didn't fall on the floor."

Vorobiev said Saylor pulled him by the arm and shoulder, causing injury and humiliation, and forced him to exit the building.

Documents filed in court by UK's lawyers say Vorobiev was noticed during the meeting because he was pacing in the back of the room and digging into a briefcase. Vorobiev was walking toward Todd after the meeting when Nathe stopped him, the documents say, but Vorobiev kept moving toward Todd. That's when Saylor asked Vorobiev to leave.

In the lobby, UK contends in court documents, Vorobiev became increasingly loud and belligerent, and "Saylor feared that Vorobiev was going to instigate a physical confrontation in the crowded lobby."

After Vorobiev refused repeated requests to step outside, "Officer Saylor took Vorobiev by the wrist and the back of his jacket with minimal force to remove him to the porch area." Once outside, Saylor released him, according to accounts by Saylor and Nathe contained in court records.

Vorobiev sued Saylor, Nathe, Todd and UK for conspiracy, assault and battery on Sept. 20, 2006.

Ishmael dismissed the case Nov. 6, 2009, and later ordered Vorobiev to pay $10,464.90 toward UK's attorneys' fees and costs.

Vorobiev appealed the dismissal to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which upheld Ishmael's opinion. In July, the court denied his petition for a rehearing. Vorobiev has now appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The defendants, including Todd, declined to talk about the case.

The law firm Walther Roark & Gay, which represented the UK defendants in the case, has billed the university almost $100,000 in that case.

Human resources stints

In various court documents, Vorobiev has described himself as a former prosecutor in his native Russia, a journalist, a corruption investigator and his wife's artistic manager.

He worked at UK, first as an unpaid visiting research scholar at the Patterson School of Diplomacy. He then worked as a temporary staff assistant in the UK human resources department in two stints from 2002 to 2004.

His personnel file, obtained by the Herald-Leader under the state's Open Records Act, includes a September 2002 memo that says several female employees had complained about "certain incidents of touching and verbiage used by Andrei with them. They did not feel the incidents were harassing in any way, but they preferred they not continue."

In an email to the Herald-Leader, Vorobiev called some of the documents in his personnel file "fake," including the memo.

Vorobiev was hired a second time by the human resources department in 2003. In one court document, Vorobiev said he was fired from that position; his personnel file says he left voluntarily in March 2004.

The human resources department has now become an issue for Irina Voro as a trustee.

Earlier this fall, after reading an article about administrative bloat, Voro sent an email to Kim Wilson, UK's vice president of human resources, asking for the number of UK administrators, minus names and salaries.

Wilson responded that all requests for information were supposed to go through board Brockman, the board chairman.

Voro then sent the entire UK faculty an email, explaining her request and the administration's response.

She wrote: "It is late Friday evening before the Board retreat. I have no idea how many administrators we have at UK. But, since you elected me to be one of Ms. Wilson's bosses, I am thinking: should I at least request the rest of the Board and the President to cut the position of VP HR from our payroll?"

Wilson worked in another UK department from 2002 to 2004 and never had direct supervision over Vorobiev, said UK spokesman Jay Blanton.

Administrative bloat

Voro has won two elections to the Board of Trustees. The first one was overturned after confusion over whether faculty serving as administrators were allowed to take part. In the second election, she talked about the need for more accountability from UK's administration.

Most of UK's trustees are establishment figures who donate heavily to the governors who appoint them. In contrast, UK's faculty trustees have a long tradition of questioning authority and serving as forceful advocates for their colleagues.

Faculty members interviewed by the Herald-Leader said legal issues that Voro and her husband have had with UK did not come up in the election.

"I don't know if other candidates were aware of this history," said Robert Grossman, a member of the University Senate, who said he had heard about the lawsuits but didn't know details. "Whose place was it to provide this information? Faculty elections are generally fairly collegial, as they should be. How were they going to raise this information without looking like a jerk?"

Pharmacy professor Dan Wermeling ran against Voro in both elections.

"It could be important for faculty to have knowledge of a person's history that might affect your ability to work within the university," Wermeling said. "Other people would have to judge whether they believe that knowledge would have influenced how they voted."

Regardless of her past, some faculty members have mixed emotions about Voro's work on the board.

Stephen Voss, a political science professor, said he thinks administrative bloat is a crucial issue facing higher education.

"She's got the usual dilemma of a protester: The things you have to do to get attention are also the things that allow others to criticize her tactics," Voss said.

He reiterated that he's glad she's bringing up issues such as administrative growth, but "the way she's approaching the protest behavior is not very attractive to me and not the way I would do it myself."

"A lot of faculty members would prefer she use different tactics, nonetheless she is articulating real grievances that can be backed by real evidence that are not discredited by flaws with her," Voss said.

UK's administrative ranks have grown by 32 percent in the past decade, compared to overall employment growth of 13 percent.

Yanarella, the former faculty trustee, said he knew nothing about Voro's legal issues with UK and has been a strong supporter.

"My fear is that she's becoming more and more isolated within the Board of Trustees and not working with some key board members who are movable," Yanarella said. "I was somewhat dismayed that she turned the issue of her not obtaining information to a misplaced focus on Kim Wilson."

At the same time, Voro is working on issues of importance to all faculty, Yanarella said.

"Maybe she's more impassioned because of the legal problems," he said, "but I'm very reluctant to conclude on the basis of passionate action that someone has an axe to grind and is trying to put the university in a bad light."

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