Debby Jennings, who spent her career helping enhance the image of the University of Tennessee athletics, is considering legal action following her abrupt departure from the program she served for 35 years as the primary media contact for Lady Vols athletics.
Jennings, who is the only media relations director recently retired basketball coach Pat Summitt ever had, was the associate athletic director for media relations when UT announced her retirement last week.
Jennings’ attorney, David Burkhalter, said first-year UT athletic director Dave Hart offered his client the choice on May 15 to be fired for “insubordination,” resign or retire. The letter was obtained by the News Sentinel through a public records request.
Burkhalter said in a letter sent to UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek on May 18 that Jennings had been advised “to pursue a discrimination/retaliation case against UT,” although Jennings “has instructed me to see if this unfortunate matter can be resolved on an amicable basis.”
Cheek or a UT legal representative has been given until Monday to contact Burkhalter, or legal action would proceed.
Jennings said she was advised by her attorney not to comment on the matter. On her Facebook page, she thanked friends who had reached out to her regarding her “announced retirement.”
Jennings’ retirement was announced by UT in a three-paragraph email. She didn’t have much time to consider her options, according to the letter her attorney sent Cheek.
Jennings received an ultimatum from Hart at 1 p.m. that day and was told to give him her decision by 4:30 p.m., before he left on the on the Big Orange Caravan, or she would be terminated for alleged “insubordination,” Burkhalter said in the letter.
“She then returned to her office to find that while she was in this meeting her computer had been confiscated and you can understand how this made her feel as if she was being treated as a common criminal,” Burkhalter’s email read. “Later, she discovered that UT had deleted the majority of her saved email files.”
Burkhalter characterized the treatment as possible retaliation for Jennings’ complaints over the last two years about gender and age discrimination within the department.
“Her complaints, however, only resulted in increased hostility, harassment, curtailment of responsibilities, and other forms of retaliation by the men placed above her.”
Jennings, 57, was replaced by Eric Trainer, a younger male staff member. Her salary was $93,296 at the time, according to the university; Trainer’s salary was $66,300.
Jennings spent all of her 35 years at UT working closely with Summitt, who coached the Lady Vols for 38 seasons before she had to step down at the end of the 2011-12 season because of early onset dementia. When UT announced last month that Summitt was retiring as coach but would stay on with the program as head coach emeritus, Jennings was unaware.
She found out about it when a News Sentinel reporter called her to request player interviews in conjunction with the announcement.
Jennings’ longtime relationship with Summitt was emphasized in a letter Jennings sent Hart on Jan. 11. The letter was obtained by the News Sentinel through a public records request.
“I have not heard from you recently regarding the request you made to me in December that you decided I should retire at the end of the school year 2011-12, so it could be announced before the end of the just completed calendar year,” Jennings wrote. “You told me you had made this ‘decision’ because I was not in your ‘future plans’ and you ‘would be headed in a different direction.’
“To be honest, I was very hurt and shocked by your request and the decision that you had made, and I am still trying to process the communications. I did discuss your ‘request’ with Pat Summitt, and she was surprised and a little shocked and told me that I had her full support and that she didn’t want me to resign.
“Further, you obviously do not know me. As a woman of character, I would never voluntarily quit as long as Pat Summitt is associated with the Lady Vols basketball program. I would not abandon her.”
Jennings also wrote in the letter to Hart that she could not afford to retire early. She reminded him that she was a cancer survivor and “I desperately need to maintain my health insurance in the work environment for as long as possible.”
She also stated in the letter that she wondered if the request for her retirement was related to her past conversations with UT administrators Jimmy Stanton and Chris Fuller regarding “age and gender discrimination toward me and others in the University of Tennessee Athletic Department or a continuation of this pattern.”
Three other women’s athletic department employees filed a gender-discrimination complaint with UT in February of 2010. Jenny Moshak, associate athletic director for women’s sports medicine, Heather Mason, assistant athletic director for women’s strength and conditioning, and Colin Schlosser, associate director for women’s strength and conditioning, claimed they were not being properly compensated when compared to members of similar standing in the men’s athletic department.
After a 10-month investigation, UT’s Office of Equity and Diversity ruled that no gender discrimination occurred. UT resident Joe DiPietro denied their appeal last year.
Moshak, Mason and Schlosser have since taken their case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Bud Ford, former sports information director, has filed a claim against UT for breach of contract. Ford, who retired in December after 45 years at UT, filed his claim last month with the state Division of Claims Administration.
He is seeking $40,000 compensation for a one-year agreement to serve as athletic department historian after his retirement. The position was eliminated by Hart.
John Adams is a senior columnist. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns