A former employee and a demoted employee of Kentucky State University are making various allegations against President Raymond Burse in a federal discrimination lawsuit.
Among other things, the lawsuit accuses Burse of retaliatory harassment, sex discrimination and unlawful termination. The lawsuit says Burse was displeased with the hiring of a white person rather than a black person for the historically black college, and that Burse belittled and berated the plaintiffs in front of their colleagues. A university spokeswoman had no comment Thursday about the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
Maifan Silitonga and Teferi Tsegaye, both of Lexington, allege in the lawsuit that there is a connection between their refusal to participate in discriminatory conduct and the actions taken against them. They say that the university in Frankfort violated state and federal civil rights laws and denied them due process. The lawsuit names the 11 members of the university’s board of regents and Burse as defendants.
Silitonga was informed in June that she had been terminated because of insubordination. She said that the university and Burse failed to notify her in writing of the charges leading to her termination, and that she was denied a hearing to make her defense to the board.
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Tsegaye remains employed at KSU but was demoted in June from dean/director of the College of Agriculture, Food Science and Sustainable Systems to a lower-paid position as a tenured professor. The demotion occurred about seven days after KSU had received notice that Tsegaye had filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the lawsuit says.
In June 2014, KSU hired a white woman as media and communications manager. The lawsuit says Tsegaye was involved in interviewing and choosing her, and the hiring was approved by Mary Sias, the KSU president at the time.
After Burse was appointed president in July 2014, Burse claimed that he was displeased with the hiring because of a “mistake” in the selection criteria included in the job advertisement.
Burse blamed Tsegaye for the mistake, but the lawsuit says it was not Tsegaye’s job to review or post job advertisements or requirements. Burse, who is black, said that “the university needed more ‘people like me’ while tapping his wrist,” the lawsuit says.
Tsegaye understood that to mean that Burse “was displeased with the hiring” because Tsegaye “had chosen a Caucasian individual rather than an African-American or black individual.”
Kentucky State University is a historically black university with an enrollment of about 1,600 students.
Burse continued to blame Tsegaye for hiring someone whom he thought didn’t represent the university, the lawsuit says. Nevertheless, Tsegaye “stood by his decision to hire the candidate, as she was the most qualified.” Tsegaye refused to discriminate against the candidate because she was white, the lawsuit says.
Burse asked Tsegaye to resign, but he repeatedly refused. Burse, meanwhile, “continually berated, belittled and humiliated” Tsegaye in front of colleagues, the lawsuit says.
After spinal surgery in November 2014, Tsegaye lost the use of his right hand, which was his writing hand. Despite that, Burse would humiliate Tsegaye by repeatedly asking him to “take down notes” at meetings with other KSU employees and officials when it wasn’t Tsegaye’s duty to transcribe the meetings, the lawsuit says.
In late March 2015, Burse instructed Tsegaye and Silitonga to terminate the director of the Rosenwald Center for Families and Children, a child care center operated by KSU, the lawsuit says. Tsegaye and Silitonga told Burse that they didn’t understand why the director was being fired, “as she had done an exceptional job at the center and was set to receive a prestigious award from the Child Care Council of Kentucky.”
Burse provided no reason for the director’s termination but indicated that she didn’t “represent” the university, the suit says. Tsegaye and Silitonga understood this to mean that the director was white.
In April 2015, the lawsuit says, Burse began pressuring Tsegaye to resign. When he refused, Burse said he was going to have the KSU Board of Regents revoke Tsegaye’s tenure.
Tsegaye received a letter from Burse in June informing him that was he was no longer associate vice president and dean/director of the College of Agriculture, a position that paid $150,756. As a tenured professor in the college, Tsegaye earns $120,756, the suit says.
Silitonga makes various claims against Burse in the suit. She alleges that Burse screamed at her and belittled her front of her colleagues. On one occasion, when Silitonga asked how Burse would prefer that she contact another department head, Burse told her “You use a telephone. T-E-L-E-P-H-O-N-E.”
In February 2015, Burse “purposely intimidated and humiliated” Silitonga in front of her colleagues “when he stood over her for several minutes and insisted that she show him her fingernails, which he called ‘claws,’” the suit says.
On another occasion, Burse yelled at Silitonga in a meeting with several other people, “then intimidated her by silently staring her down for over a minute,” the lawsuit alleges.
Burse did not treat “similarly situated male co-workers in this same fashion,” the suit says.
Tsegaye and Silitonga seek a trial by jury, punitive damages and their attorneys’ fees.