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Under Fire: IT accused of discrimination and financial mismanagement

By on February 18, 2014
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This story continues coverage begun on Nov. 5, 2013. The original Louisville Cardinal article by Ginny Washbish can be found here. The Reddit.com post can be found here.

By Simon Isham—

U of L Information Technology continues to battle accusations of discrimination from former and current employees. Further allegations have surfaced about financial mismanagement by IT leadership. IT says these claims are baseless.

A former IT employee told the Cardinal, “For some months it was nothing short of a hostile, bullying work environment.”

An Oct. 8, 2013 post on social news site Reddit.com accused IT of “very quietly finding reasons to terminate people for the last (three) years.” The post, and subsequent comments, suggested that discrimination against men was to blame.

The post continued that leadership “would walk up to people that had been in IT for several years and give them 30 days to learn a new language and write complex production programs. If they did not get the job done, they were adiosed from the university. (U of L) did not have to pay these people unemployment or offer a severance package since they had cause.” The jobs were outsourced immediately to Oracle Managed Cloud Services.

The post also makes reference to an employee of the department who was isolated from his coworkers and complained to President Ramsey about his treatment. It said that Ramsey offered to write the employee a letter of recommendation to his next job, and that Human Resources has ignored all filed grievances.

Ramsey said he did not receive any contact from such an employee recently. He said he remembered being approached via email “at least two years ago” by a former IT employee trying to obtain a job reference. Ramsey said he did not give the employee in question a reference, and that he does not normally give references to anyone.

Vice President of Human Resources Sam Connally said he had received no complaints about work conditions.

The post also makes reference to a “hench-person” for Vice President of IT Dr. Priscilla Hancock. The post is unclear about this person’s role in the IT department, but insinuates that she is a woman who is not qualified for the job she has.

Employees say they fear retribution for dissent

In mid-November, the Cardinal received an anonymous letter from a male IT employee. The author of the letter said that he could not reveal his identity for fear of retribution from senior IT officials. He accused IT Executive Director Brenda Gombosky of covering up the discrimination going on in the department.

“If the (Reddit post) had any factual points, then she would be admitting to aiding and abetting the male discrimination, firing and hostile work environment within IT,” he said. “Nearly every employee in IT is deeply afraid to come forward and complain about the mistreatment … I know for a fact that IT employees are not encouraged to speak their mind. If they do, there’s a likely chance that there will be retribution if the viewpoint does not agree with (that of the leadership).”

In the Cardinal’s Nov. 5, 2013 issue, Gombosky said, “We get complaints daily. It’s freedom of speech. They have the right to say what they want.”

When asked in a more recent interview why daily complaints from employees should not concern IT leadership, Gombosky said that “My reference to complaints did not refer to employees at all. I was referring to the fact that by the very nature of our business, in IT, we get many complaints about technology not working the way users think it should. We do address issues that come in a formal manner, such as in a HelpDesk ticket or a call for technical assistance. We do not look through blogs and social media for complaints.”

The IT department was made aware of the Reddit post at the time it was created, and was advised not to publicly issue a response. Gombosky said her personal opinion was that the post was “made to seem like a current disgruntled employee.”

Assistant Director of IT criticized, male discrimination accusations made

The author of the anonymous letter said that the “hench-person” to which the Reddit user refers is Assistant Director of IT Sherry Roark.

“(Roark) has absolutely risen from a low-level programmer to the director of information systems with a couple of promotions along the way. She never had to apply or interview for any of these positions along the way for which many others were hoping to have,” it said.

“All the high-level positions within IT have been appointed to women,” it continued. “It was one of Dr. Hancock’s goals to hire more women in high management roles. That’s one thing she has definitely accomplished. Although every one of the high-level positions should have gone (through) a hiring process, she chose not to post them at all, but to appoint whomever she liked to these prestigious positions. I know of many men and women that would have liked to have an opportunity to apply for these jobs but were never given a chance.”

When asked specifically about Roark’s qualifications for her position, Hancock, the VP of IT, replied that “The technical leadership team in IT has been in technology positions for over 20 years with over half of them having over 30 years in IT. All of these years at U of L.”

In response to accusations of male discrimination, she said, “The composition of (the) IT technical leadership team consists of two men and three women not counting myself. All of these individuals were in management roles when I was hired six years ago.”

Gombosky, the executive director of IT, when asked about whether IT upper-management had to interview for their positions, said “I have been at (U of L) in (IT) and management since 1988 and I have had many positions since my hiring. I have had positions that I have both applied for and been promoted to. As in any organization, people that are qualified can be promoted or reclassified to a new position. Many factors are evaluated when hiring an individual in or outside the university: years of experience, education, past performance — if currently employed. Obviously we do try to promote from within whenever there are internal candidates that are eligible.”

The letter also accuses Roark of having said at a staff meeting, “It’s too bad I was so busy this week, I didn’t have time to fire anyone.”

Gombosky said Roark denies that anything of this nature was ever said.

Gombosky said she was unaware of the incident. She also said that she cannot remember the last time that anyone in IT was fired.

The letter makes mention of an IT Diversity Climate Survey, which it said is “very appropriate for the gender discrimination that is going on.” According to Vice Provost of Institutional Research, Effectiveness and Analytics Bob Goldstein, the survey is considered in “draft form,” meaning that it is “confidential and for internal distribution only.” The Cardinal was unable to obtain its findings.

Financial mismanagement blamed for alleged discriminatory behavior

“I believe much of the baseless firings are directly related to the IT leadership’s fiscal mismanagement of the department’s funds,” the letter’s anonymous author said. “Practically at a whim, they decided to experiment with Oracle Managed Services and ship a portion of the PeopleSoft support to India. Obviously, there’s a pretty high cost to do this and has to be paid for from somewhere — hence, find a reason to fire people.”

A discrimination complaint against Hancock, obtained through an open records request, makes a similar accusation. It stated that a demotion of the complainant on Oct. 9, 2013 was a result of “racial (and) sexual discrimination by Dr. Priscilla Hancock to stifle my professional career,” and was a “retaliation by Dr. Priscilla Hancock for speaking the truth, pointing out waste of university funds both capital expense and recurring annual waste.”

One section of the form asked for “any employees that may have witnessed or heard the alleged discrimination or may have information to offer during an investigation.” The complainant wrote, “All IT staff with the following exceptions: Brenda Gombosky, Sherry Roark and (Assistant Vice President) Sande Johnson-Byers.” It explained, “retaliation in the IT department is rampant.”

The nine-page complaint letter further claimed:

  • Johnson-Byers was appointed as assistant vice president; she was not interviewed. The complainant applied and was denied for this position.
  • The executive director of IT position was created for Gombosky. No other employees were given the opportunity to apply for the position.
  • Sherry Roark was appointed as interim director of IT, despite having “no leadership, technical or people skills. No other employees were considered for the position.
  • The department spent more than $1.6 million on Oracle software for a “bioinformatics initiative” that is not being used. The department continued to pay Oracle upwards of $300,000 for annual liability in licensing costs.
  • The complainant’s most recent personal performance appraisal reflected negatives across all categories. He said he was not told of any problems with his performance until he received the appraisal. He said he was not given an opportunity to address these issues.

When asked about IT’s long term goals and plans, Hancock replied with this link: Louisville.edu/it/about-us/strategic-plan-2020

The complaint was reviewed by the human resources department, but no merit was found in the complaints. The complaint was reviewed on Dec. 9, 2013 by Director of Staff Development and Employee Relations Mary Elizabeth Miles, and Equal Employment Opportunity Specialist Malinda A. Durbin. VP for HR Sam Connally also reviewed the document.

“Based on your account of the facts, there is no factual basis to support your complaint that Dr. Hancock discriminated against you because of your race or gender. Decision-making ability to restructure work assignments is inherently within management’s (Dr. Hancock’s) authority. Consequently, your complaint is hereby dismissed,” they said in their findings.

Though the name associated with the request was redacted by university open records compliance staff, the Cardinal was able to link the document to former U of L employee Oliver Nicholas through interviews with him. Nicholas was one of three male IT employees, including Jay Malott and Mike Elder, who resigned from the department in October of last year. One female employee also resigned that month.

Nicholas told the Cardinal that his departure was entirely voluntary, but sudden. He cited differences of opinion with IT management as the reason for his resignation, though he was complimentary of the general working environment and non-leadership employees.

“My integrity was being questioned,” he said. “My two peers, both women, were making at least $12,000 more than me, when neither have the educational and professional credentials I possess … Furthermore, it does not help when you are colored. Let me keep it simple and just ask this: how many supervisors or managers are there in IT who are not white?

“Please don’t get me wrong; I care for and respect the university of Louisville — mostly I had a decent experience during my brief tenure at (Miller Information Technology Center). Along the way I have made some truly special friends for life. It seems to me that a few bad apples are rotting the whole basket.”

Nicholas worked for IT at U of L for two years. He has remained in Louisville and currently works as an IT consultant and administrator for the University of Phoenix.

Malott and Elder did not respond to the Cardinal’s request for comment on their resignations.

Update 3/18/14: Priscilla Hancock sent an email to all of IT staff today, which said: “Dear IT Staff Members, Information Technology is undergoing an internal reorganization to strengthen the IT executive leadership team and better position us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century Initiative. Effective immediately, Bob Knaster, Director of Design/Printing Services, will be reporting directly to me. Also, Mike Dyre, Director of Research Computing and IT Planning and Interim Director of Communications Infrastructure, will be reporting to me directly. With these changes my executive leadership team will consist of Sande Johnson-Byers, Brenda Gombosky, Ann Hobdy, Bob Knaster and Mike Dyre. A new organizational chart is under development and will be published soon. Thanks for your assistance as we make these changes. Best, pah”

About Simon Isham

Simon Isham is the Editor-in-Chief of The Louisville Cardinal, where he has worked since 2012. For his reporting at the Cardinal, he has won awards from the Kentucky Press Association and the Louisville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He has also written for LEO Weekly and Insider Louisville. He will graduate in December, 2014.

One Comment

  1. Bob Saget

    February 20, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Good!! Bunch of bastards.

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