Lawsuits accuse NCCU chancellor of racism, misuse of state funds

Posted May 27, 2015 11:57 a.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2015 7:21 p.m. EDT

— Lawsuits filed by three former North Carolina Central University employees accuse Chancellor Debra Saunders-White of discriminating against non-blacks at the school and spending taxpayer money on personal meals, entertainment and home exercise equipment.

Marianne Murphy, a former professor at N.C. Central's business school, and Francis Smith, former director of graduate, professional and executive programs at the business school, are seeking back pay in addition to other damages in their federal lawsuits. Kimberly Luse, Saunders-White's former chief of staff, filed her suit in Durham County Superior Court and is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for health problems that she said resulted from a hostile work environment.

Smith and Luse are white, while Murphy is a native of Cuba.

In a statement issued Wednesday, university officials denied the "numerous unfounded allegations" and said they would "vigorously and aggressively" defend the school in court.

"NCCU has an impeccable record of fostering diversity and inclusion within its faculty, staff and student communities," the statement said. "Since Dr. Debra Saunders-White assumed her duties as Chancellor in 2013, she has led NCCU with passion, fairness, focus, openness and integrity, and will continue to do so in that manner."

Luse alleges that Saunders-White had a "personal animus" toward her that escalated after she reported the chancellor spending state money on personal expenses. Saunders-White berated Luse in front of colleagues, accused her of having sex with N.C. Central employees and visitors and fabricated documentation that Luse wasn't performing her job properly, according to the lawsuit.

"(Saunders-White) advised Dr. Luse that she could never perform her job effectively because, as a Caucasian female, Dr. Luse could never understand the environment at a historically black college like NCCU," the lawsuit states. "(Saunders-White) attempted to make Dr. Luse openly uncomfortable at work by making outrageous statements, including by stating on one occasion that the only two things NCCU was really about were 'chicken and (sex).'"

N.C. Central students expressed shock at the allegations.

"Just being around Dr. Saunders, that's not her. That doesn't sound like her," junior Jalen Underhill said.

"I'm waiting to see what else comes from this, but it does put her in a different light," sophomore Saudah Jones said.

Murphy and Smith reiterate some of the claims in their lawsuits, which have received clearance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They also allege that both former business school dean Keith Pigues and current Interim Dean Juanita Lester have engaged in racial discrimination against non-blacks.

Smith lost his job in a restructuring of the business school last year, although a black employee was hired to take his place, according to his lawsuit. Murphy left her tenured position at N.C. Central after her complaints to university administrators about over being paid less than black professors and being passed over for promotions were never addressed, her lawsuit states.

"This is not an effort to derail or take down Central," said attorney Laura Noble, who represents all three plaintiffs.

Noble and attorney Nick Sanservino said the lawsuits are the result of more than a year of trying to address the allegations privately.

"We have tried to resolve these disputes both amicably and in good faith, and we have reached an impasse recently," Sanservino said.

Murphy also alleges in her lawsuit that University of North Carolina system officials are aware of racial discrimination at N.C. Central but have chosen not to address it.

The UNC system referred all questions to the North Carolina Attorney General's Office, which declined to comment.