Durham County

NCCU clears deck of lawsuits dating from Saunders-White era. What did the school agree to?

N.C. Central University has settled the last of a string of discrimination lawsuits linked to the in-house turmoil that surrounded the split of its former Department of English and Mass Communication.

Documents released by N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office show NCCU agreed to pay professor Matthew Cook $30,000 to resolve the lawsuit he filed in 2016 in response to having been passed over for chairman of what’s now the Language and Literature department.

Cook’s lawyers, from the Chapel Hill-based Noble Law Firm, were in line to get $8,013 of the money.

The professor and Chancellor Johnson Akinleye both signed the settlement agreement Aug. 25, effectively putting an end to the final lawsuit attorneys Nicholas Sanservino and Laura Noble filed on behalf of various people who claimed they were wronged during the tenure of former Chancellor Debra Saunders-White.

The bulk of those cases came from people who’d been in the former English department. Another professor, Charmaine McKissick-Melton, settled with the school in June, NCCU agreeing to pay her $8,000. She complained of having been passed over for chairwoman of the Department of Mass Communication, a spinoff of the former English department.

The lawyers got $1,600 of McKissick-Melton’s settlement. In both cases, the agreements stipulated that “NCCU denies any wrongdoing.” They also barred the professors from publicizing the deals, which nonetheless are public record under North Carolina law.

A federal judge early this year threw out a lawsuit from a third professor, James Pearce, who’d complained about how NCCU handled the high-level personnel decisions spawned by the decision to split English into two departments. Like Cook, he’d sought the chairmanship of Language and Literature, losing out to eventual selection Wendy Rountree.

All three pointed a finger at Carlton Wilson, a historian who at the time was NCCU’s dean of arts and science and who’s now the institution’s interim provost. All contended they were more qualified for the chairs’ jobs than the people who got them, Rountree and former Appalachian State University professor Calvin Hall.

But court filings indicate that the dispute’s roots go back to Wilson’s promotion to arts and sciences dean in 2011, under former Chancellor Charlie Nelms. The three professors were all in various ways opposed to Wilson’s appointment or aligned with higher-ups who were. Pearce and Cook argued that Wilson subsequently put a finger on the scales to favor Rountree’s candidacy.

Financially, the $8,000 sufficed to settle McKissick-Melton’s case. But Cook was able to secure other concessions from NCCU, namely the promise of two years’ unpaid research leave and a cap on the number of courses he can be asked to teach in a semester.

The leave includes all of the 2017-18 academic year. The rest can be taken in semester- or full-year chunks, provided he gives six months’ notice and gets a departmental OK. The course cap stipulates that he won’t have to teach more than two traditional and two online courses in a semester.

At least two other Sanservino/Noble client have secured settlements from NCCU. Saunders-White’s original chief of staff, Kimberly Luse, obtained $175,000 after complaining of her early 2014 ouster, and former business school professor Marianne Murphy got $50,000 in a deal Saunders-White signed in March 2016. The former chancellor died of kidney cancer last November.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg