- The former general counsel for Western Kentucky University filed a lawsuit against the institution after she was fired, alleging officials wrongfully terminated her and retaliated against her for reporting that other high-ranking administrators were violating university policies.
- Deborah Wilkins, who is in her early 60s, worked at the university for more than 25 years before being terminated in November, accused the university of counts of breach of contract, fraud, defamation, wrongful termination and several state law violations. The lawsuit, Deborah Wilkins v. Western Kentucky University, et al., was filed in a Kentucky circuit court last week.
- Along with the university, the lawsuit names the institution's president, Timothy Caboni, and several other top officials as defendants. Wilkins seeks a jury trial and an unnamed amount of compensatory and punitive damages.
The lawsuit accuses Western Kentucky and its top officials of a range of unlawful activity, including discriminating against Wilkins for her age and sex and trying to damage her reputation.
Kentucky State referred Higher Ed Dive to R. Gregg Hovious, an outside lawyer representing the university, for comment. Hovious did not immediately respond Monday.
The trouble began when Timothy Caboni became Western Kentucky's president in 2017, according to the lawsuit. Among his early actions was relocating the general counsel's office from the same building as his own to a nearby administrative building. He also hired and promoted several people to top administrative positions, all of whom were younger and earned a higher salary than Wilkins, the lawsuit alleges.
Wilkins received complaints against top administrators alleging violations of anti-discrimination policies. Though she aired these complaints to Caboni, no actions were taken against any of the administrators, according to the lawsuit. When Wilkins was in a meeting with several of these administrators, she was "subjected to verbal harassment, threatening behavior, and demeaning age and gender derogatory language," the lawsuit alleges.
The suit alleges one administrator asked Wilkins, "Are you going to run to daddy?" Wilkins reported the incident to the university's director of equal opportunity and human resources director the same day, and to Caboni the following day, but no action was taken. Afterward, one of the administrators involved referred to Wilkins as a "gender specific obscenity" in public, according to the lawsuit. Wilkens again went to Caboni, to no avail.
Instead, the lawsuit says, her performance began to be scrutinized and her job duties shrank.
"Wilkins had provided legal opinions, advice and counsel to virtually every aspect of WKU operations and navigated WKU through legal risks and interests successfully for decades," the lawsuit reads. "Wilkins was now removed or isolated from Cabinet level matters, her communications, questions, or counsel were openly ignored, her motivations were 'questioned,' and routine tasks performed by Wilkins and her staff were investigated and/or suspended."
Caboni also began to ask Wilkins when she intended to retire and whether her contract could be bought out.
In early 2020, the president made her an offer. If she retired in June 2020, two years before her contract was slated to expire, the university would pay her an amount equal to her annual salary a month later, as well as an amount equal to two years of her salary in January 2021. Caboni also allegedly promised to promote an assistant general counsel serving under Wilkins — Andrea Anderson, who had just been offered another job outside of the university — as the new general counsel.
Wilkins accepted the buyout. But before an agreement was formally drafted, Caboni told her the university's governing board would not accept the offer and it was off the table. He also told her he intended to remove her from the general counsel position and reassign her to a new position: interim Title IX coordinator and senior adviser to the president. If she didn't accept, the lawsuit says, she would have been immediately terminated.
She accepted the new role and was replaced by the university's assistant general counsel, who had five years of professional experience, according to the lawsuit. Anderson's salary was bumped to $178,164, the same pay Wilkins earned, even though the new general counsel had much less experience.
In her new role, Wilkins was responsible for overseeing the university's compliance with Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in educational settings. Despite her "accomplishments and successes" in this role, the lawsuit says, university officials continued to discriminate and retaliate against her.
In May 2021, Caboni told Wilkins her position would be eliminated the next year and that her duties would become part of a new position at a lower salary. He also said Wilkins agreed to retire when those changes took effect, which she refuted at the time.
The lawsuit also alleges that officials didn't follow the proper steps to recommend her role be changed and provided incorrect information about her duties — all of which were intended to retaliate against her and eliminate her employee rights under university policy and the law. In November 2021, the provost told Wilkins she was being relieved of her job duties, effective immediately.
Officials accessed Wilkin's email after her termination, including by forwarding and responding to emails, according to the lawsuit. These actions were also a violation of university policy, it alleges.