State

Ex-president says University of the Cumberlands owes him $395,000 annually

Students walked on the University of the Cumberlands campus in Williamsburg in April 2006.
Students walked on the University of the Cumberlands campus in Williamsburg in April 2006. cbertram@herald-leader.com

A former president of the University of the Cumberlands alleges the school has threatened to cut off retirement benefits totaling nearly $400,000 a year that trustees promised him.

James H. Taylor and his wife, Dinah, sued UC over the issue in federal court this week.

Taylor was president of the college in Williamsburg from August 1980 until he retired in October 2015, heading the school during a time of significant growth in enrollment, campus facilities and assets, according to the lawsuit.

Their attorney, D. Duane Cook of Georgetown, said Taylor, 70, and his wife, 69, are heartbroken over the school’s effort to cut their retirement benefits after their decades of service.

“They gave their lives to the university,” Cook said.

The school’s football stadium is named for the Taylors’ son, who was killed in a car wreck in 1991.

The university said Wednesday in a statement that officials have been trying to work out a settlement with Taylor.

UC offered Taylor a compensation package valued at more than $150,000 a year for a part-time role, but he instead insists that the university pay him and his wife more than twice that much annually “whether or not they do any work for the university,” its statement said.

“The university could not agree to use student’s tuition payments and the faithful support from its donors in such an irresponsible manner,” it said in the statement.

The university exists to provide an opportunity for students of all backgrounds, especially those in the Appalachian region, to have a college education. The university does not exist to unfairly benefit a single individual, no matter how long he has served the university.

Statement from the University of the Cumberlands

UC, a private liberal-arts college affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, offers four-year and graduate degrees. It has about 1,400 undergraduates and a total enrollment, counting online students, of about 6,000, its website says.

The roots of the disagreement between Taylor and the school date back more than a decade.

The lawsuit said that even as James Taylor worked to build up UC, his salary was significantly lower than university presidents in similar situations.

In 2005, the university’s trustees voted unanimously in a closed session for a plan under which James Taylor would be named chancellor when he retired, and the university would continue to pay his salary and benefits for the rest of his life, according to the lawsuit.

If Taylor died before his wife, his salary and benefits would continue to her for the rest of her life under the deal, the lawsuit said.

Trustees also agreed to continue Dinah Taylor’s separate salary, the lawsuit said.

The complaint said the deal was put into a contract in 2012 which the board approved, and that the board reaffirmed the continued, lifelong benefits in 2015.

The package includes Taylor’s salary, health insurance for the couple, the use of a university-owned apartment in Williamsburg, a car and his cell phone, according to the lawsuit.

The package is worth at least $395,000 annually, the lawsuit said.

The Taylors live in Florida but he is chancellor of UC and his wife continues to serve as an ambassador the school, according to the lawsuit.

The use of economic coercion against an elderly couple, including threats of the loss of their residence and health insurance, as well as their income, in an effort to accomplish a breach of a longstanding and enforceable contract is an affront to decent society, and is outrageous in light of the relationship between Dr. and Mrs. Taylor and the university which employed them for so many years.

Lawsuit filed by James and Dinah Taylor

The university has tried to coerce Taylor into accepting benefits worth less than he was promised by threatening not to pay anything, the lawsuit said.

UC officials offered Taylor a one-year, renewable deal at a much lower salary, and told him if he didn’t take it that he would lose all benefits.

Taylor turned down UC, and the school has said the couple’s benefits have been terminated, the lawsuit said.

Cook filed a request Wednesday for an injunction to preserve the couple’s benefits.

The Taylors sued the school for breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The effort to take away their benefits has caused stress, concern over how they will stay connected to family and friends in Williamsburg and worries about paying for health insurance, the complaint said.

“The use of economic coercion against an elderly couple, including threats of the loss of their residence and health insurance, as well as their income, in an effort to accomplish a breach of a longstanding and enforceable contract is an affront to decent society, and is outrageous in light of the relationship between Dr. and Mrs. Taylor and the university which employed them for so many years,” the lawsuit charges.

Taylor said in an affidavit that his wife has canceled medical appointments because of the loss of insurance. The two live in fear that an accident or illness will wipe them out, and they might have to sell their house to pay bills without income from UC, Taylor said.

“We feel like the university if trying to starve us out,” he said.

The lawsuit also alleges agents of the university slandered Taylor with false statements to the effect that Taylor had the retirement agreement drawn up in a “deceitful or scheming manner” and hid it from the school and trustees.

Jim Oaks, who was on the UC board of trustees for more than 30 years, said in a sworn statement that during his time, it was the sense of all trustees that Taylor and his wife were paid less than presidents at many comparable schools, and that Taylor had “greatly exceeded” fundraising expectations.

Oaks said it was clear from at least October 2005 that the trustees intended to compensate the couple for the rest of their lives.

Oaks said he was aware the couple’s benefits had been terminated, and said he viewed that as not only a breach of the contract “but as a tragedy for the university.”

However, the university said in its statement that it would not be right to pay the Taylors $400,000 a year.

“The university exists to provide an opportunity for students of all backgrounds, especially those in the Appalachian region, to have a college education. The university does not exist to unfairly benefit a single individual, no matter how long he has served the university,” the statement said.

UC is “strongly of the opinion” that the purported agreement was never shown to trustees before it was signed and was not properly approved by the board, according to the statement.

The statement said university officials are saddened that Taylor has “chosen to attack” the school to which he devoted much of his life, and that UC will “vigorously oppose any effort to divert its resources for the unjust enrichment of a private individual.”

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