Unfounded discrimination claims lead to resignation of Missouri State diversity VP

Missouri State University’s highest-ranking black official has just resigned after an investigation found “no credible evidence” of allegations that he was the victim of racial discrimination.

MSU announced on its website Monday that Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Ken Coopwood would resign effective April 30, 2016—less than one week after the outside law firm hired to look into the case had released its findings.

“I agreed to the investigation and actively participated in it,” Coopwood said in the press release, adding, “I think that the investigative team took the matter seriously and conducted a thorough investigation.”

Reiterating that he accepts the investigation and its findings, Coopwood said he had nonetheless “decided it would be best for me to pursue other professional opportunities.”

The university initiated the investigation in December after a MoveOn.org petition surfaced alleging that Coopwood had been subject to “gross and racist treatment” on the part of both his staff and the university administration.

“Other VPs on campus, who happen to be white, earn more in salary and have better funded divisions,” the complainant, local citizen Du'Sean Howard, writes in the petition.

“I know that of late, Dr. Coopwood’s division was ‘repurposed’ for the sake of doing higher level activity, e.g. climate study, and diversity conference, but left internal units without leadership for the change these efforts should provoke,” the mostly-coherent allegation continues. “This repurposing was stated in the SpringfieldNews-Leader and it caused several diversity-related units to be left without the benefit of his expertise and leadership.”

Compounding the issue, Howard asserts that “I’ve learned through students and others in the community that, in fact, [the] staff within Dr. Coopwood’s division [has] been despicable and hostile towards him, even created circumstances against him which made his leadership appear to be both faulty and unethical in an effort to gain favor with senior administration.”

As further evidence of Coopwood’s shabby treatment by the school, Howard recounts from personal experience that “his effort to develop his staff and expand the work of his division was not being supported in any way that proved the university was serious about diversity,” and adds that, “in fact, it appears that Dr. Coopwood’s unit and his resources have been taken away to show favor to others at MSU who were known by the president before him.”

According to an executive summary of the investigators’ report, however, the three attorneys who handled the case were unable to find credible evidence to support any of the allegations made in Howard’s petition over the course of their 15-day enquiry, during the course of which they reviewed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed 38 individuals in meetings lasting up to four hours. The attorneys requested an interview with Howard, but he refused, as did five of the 17 witnesses suggested by Coopwood.

To further demonstrate the legitimacy of the process, the summary even provides a breakdown of the interviewees by race and gender, revealing for instance that nine were African-Americans, two had disabilities, 18 were women, and 10 were Caucasian men.

“Dr. Coopwood’s annual salary was determined based on the same process and criteria that were used for other Vice Presidents at the university,” the investigators declare in response to the first charge, adding that Coopwood had agreed to a $112,000 annual salary at a time when the average for his position was $99,779, and that he received standard raises each year, bringing his current salary to $120,402.

The investigators also determined that the Division for Diversity and Inclusion had been subject to the same budgetary process as all other departments throughout Coopwood’s tenure, and that the Division’s budget had in fact increased from $280,456 in 2013 to $397,726 for the current academic year.

Moreover, they note that “President [Clif] Smart has made additional funds available to the Division for Diversity and Inclusion and other diversity projects out of the President’s Budget,” detailing well over $1 million in such grants (including $180,000 for “Dr. Coopwood’s requested renovation of his office suite”).

The report also responds to the claim that resources had been taken away from Coopwood’s department, stating that “the move was intended to create a direct reporting line to the President in order to remove the potential for conflicts of interest in the … investigation of internal complaints,” as well as “to allow President Smart to have a greater involvement in the University’s Title IX compliance efforts in light of the ongoing national discussions regarding sexual assaults on campus.”

Regarding the 2014 restructuring that was allegedly done in an effort to undermine Coopwood’s leadership, the investigators instead found that the transfer of four student service departments to the Division of Student Affairs at the start of 2015 “was due to ongoing complaints by personell within the Division for Diversity and Inclusion and to allow Dr. Coopwood to focus on strategic initiatives instead of day-to-day student programs.

Indeed, the report even points out that “Dr. Coopwood was involved in the decision-making process that ultimately resulted in this restructure,” and had even “publicly told employees at the university and media outlets that he was pleased with the decision.”

“My fear has come to pass, but I can’t say that I am surprised by the news,” Howard told the Springfield News-Leader Monday in response to the news that Coopwood—whom he considers a close friend—would be resigning.

“I hope that his replacement will make it a priority to reach out to the community, and be within reach,” Howard added, saying the local community “will miss the services of a good steward” when Coopwood departs.

“We’ve come a long way regarding diversity and inclusion and will continue to make progress going forward,” President Smart stated in the university press release, adding that the school “will be aggressively looking to identify an internal candidate who can continue the momentum, ideally sometime this week.”

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