Saying there’s “too much water under the bridge to return” to Kentucky State University, fired agriculture professor Harold Benson plans to sue his former employer, his attorney says.
Brenda Allen told The State Journal Tuesday that her client was unable to reach a settlement with KSU, and she’s preparing to file suit on his behalf.
Allen says she is awaiting documents she requested from KSU under the Kentucky Open Records Act, and will likely file the suit in early September. She argues that her client was tenured faculty and couldn’t legally be terminated.
Benson, 66, was let go June 30 after 36 years in the Land Grant Program. He says he received a two-sentence letter that asked him to leave his office by the end of the day.
Allen says the lawsuit will seek Benson’s back pay beginning with the day of his termination and pay from the date of the trial until he would have retired – possibly five years. The suit may also seek punitive damages related to a claim of age or disability discrimination, she said.
The KSU Board of Regents abolished Benson’s position last fall in a restructuring that established the College of Agriculture, Food Science and Sustainable Systems. The dean of that college will also head the Land Grant Program, and the position requires an advanced degree in agriculture, something Benson does not have.
“Additionally, we are exploring whether there was some other discriminatory motive (age or disability) behind the decision to craft the Dean position to include duties of the position of the Director of Land Grant and to establish the credentials for that position such that Dr. Benson would not qualify and then to try to force him to retire,” Allen said by email today.
She says that KSU administrators “began pressuring Dr. Benson and actually gave him directives to retire” by Jan. 31 or June 30 of this year.
KSU spokeswoman Felicia Lewis declined to comment about the potential lawsuit this morning.
The university initially declined comment about Benson’s termination because it is a personnel matter, aside from praising Benson for his service.
But Laura Douglas, chairwoman of the KSU Board of Regents, published a letter to the editor in Sunday’s State Journal about the issue.
She says KSU had a “strong desire to keep Dr. Benson with the university community because of his record of service” and offered him several other jobs.
“Regrettably, by the end of the fiscal personnel contract year, he failed to accept any of our offers,” Douglas said in the letter.
“His former position no longer exists. That is how we find ourselves at this point after open discussions and exemplary efforts to keep Dr. Benson within the university community.”
Allen says KSU offered Benson a six-month position as a special assistant to the provost at a salary of $67,000 – commensurate with his former annual salary of $134,000.
His job would have been to write the history of the Land Grant program, she said, something he felt wasn’t consistent with his education or experience.
“You could get a graduate student to do that,” she said. “It was not in keeping with his contributions or his talents.”
The job offer also required him to reapply after that six-month term was up and waive any rights to future legal claims, Allen said.
The State Journal has filed a request under the Kentucky Open Records act for documents related to the job offers, but has not received a response yet.
KSU President Mary Sias announced the appointment of Dr. Teferi Tsegaye to the position of dean of the College of Agriculture, Food Science and Sustainable Systems and director of the Land Grant Program last month.
Tsegaye is an expert in soil physics and environmental science, specifically water quality and quantity. He comes to Frankfort from Alabama A&M University, where he spent the last 14 years at as a researcher, professor and administrator.
The position was created in October 2010, when the Board of Regents voted to restructure the university through merger and the creation of two colleges: the College of Business and Computer Science and the College of Agriculture, Food Science and Sustainable Systems.
The Land Grant Program previously operated KSU’s agriculture courses, but it wasn’t its own college until the vote.
Benson served as interim dean last year, but Allen says he didn’t expect to be given the permanent position because it requires an advanced degree in agriculture. He has a doctorate in adult and cooperative extension administration.