University of Tennessee Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Dave Hart has responded to the threat of legal action concerning Debby Jennings' departure from the athletic department by issuing a statement that said the former associate athletics director for media relations was "insubordinate, disrespectful and fostered an atmosphere of negativity and division."
"I lost confidence that her employment was in the best interests of the Athletics Department,'' Hart said Thursday.
After 35 years as the primary media contact for Lady Vols athletics, UT announced Jennings' retirement last Friday.
"Based on her years of service, she was eligible for full retirement from the university, including medical benefits," Hart said in his statement. "I gave her the opportunity to retire instead of being terminated, and she chose that option."
Hart's response came a day after a letter from Jennings' attorney David Burkhalter to UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek was obtained by the News Sentinel through an open records request. In the letter, Burkhalter said Jennings had been advised to "pursue a discrimination/retaliation case against UT" after Hart offered Jennings the choice on May 15 to be fired for "insubordination," resign or retire.
In a letter dated Thursday and provided to the News Sentinel by school officials, university assistant general counsel Michael D. Fitzgerald said "the university did not terminate Ms. Jennings' employment because of age, gender or in retaliation for earlier complaints of discrimination."
The letter virtually mirrored Hart's statement regarding Jennings and added: "Further, she repeatedly demonstrated resistance to working cooperatively in a unified athletics department."
Fitzgerald's letter also stated, "Based on the manner in which Ms. Jennings is pursuing her agenda through the media, we question the sincerity of your suggestion that Ms. Jennings wishes to resolve this matter on an 'amicable' basis."
A phone book-thick stack of emails and letters from Jennings' personnel file released Thursday to the News Sentinel included a March 16 email from Jennings to Hart that began: "I learned yesterday that you just told Pat Summitt that she will not be back next year as our head women's basketball coach and I respectfully ask you to please reconsider this decision as it is not in the best interests of the university and also, in view of Pat's condition, it is discriminatory and wrong."
The balance of the email was devoted to Jennings defending her commitment to the athletic department's consolidation and defending herself against Hart's observation in a Feb. 27 email that Jennings had been "very negative and divisive about the change in structure and have worked against the goal of a unified athletics department."
Hart's response to Jennings' March 16 email focused on her assertion concerning Summitt: "The email you sent me at 12:52 a.m. regarding coach Summitt is so inaccurate, on so many levels, that it does not warrant a meaningful response. I would think that a person holding a position such as yours would understand, far better than most, the negative impact of your rumor speculation."
There also was a memo dated March 1, 2011, from Jimmy Stanton, an associate athletic director for media relations, to senior associate athletic director Chris Fuller, describing a meeting with Jennings for an annual performance review. Stanton said Jennings, "feels she has not been included in decisions and strategy moving forward to the degree she would have liked." He also wrote that Jennings claimed that Stanton had "engaged in both age and sex discrimination related to her."
Stanton wrote that he considered the accusation "hurtful, and that this was absolutely not true, but did not address it further."
Fuller subsequently met with Jennings concerning gender/age discrimination claims. In a memo dated May 10, 2011, he wrote that he asked Jennings why she had not followed up with the Office of Equity and Diversity and she replied that she had, "received some advice but she was not ready at this time to advance the complaint."
Fuller also wrote: "I shared with Debby that I don't believe she ever really bought in to Stanton (or Fuller for that matter) as her direct supervisor and that much of her behavior would indicate that she is not committed to the direction that we're trying to create for athletic communications."
Stanton's review of Jennings for the 2010 calendar year stated that she either achieved or exceeded expectations in all job elements reviewed. He went on say: "Debby's work with Lady Vol basketball has been outstanding for decades and continues to be among the best in the nation."
The review chronicled a year in which Stanton, in a memo to Fuller, detailed a Sept. 27 conversation with Jennings that demonstrated what Stanton felt was "a disrespectful and, at times, downright hostile attitude toward numerous internal constituencies."
In the 2010 review, the lone reference to any internal problems involving Jennings came with the following comment: "While there is limited evidence to indicate that she believed in the direction in which athletic communications is headed, her goals indicate that she views this as a high priority for her in 2011."
Statement from University of Tennessee Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Dave Hart:
"Although I do not normally comment on personnel decisions, given the nature and volume of inaccurate information that has been disseminated from those around Debby Jennings, I believe it is necessary to set the record straight. I lost confidence that her employment was in the best interests of the Athletics Department. Specifically, I concluded that she was insubordinate, disrespectful and fostered an atmosphere of negativity and division.
"Based on her years of service, she was eligible for full retirement from the University, including medical benefits. I gave her the opportunity to retire instead of being terminated, and she chose that option. I will have no additional comment at this time, and I wish Debby well in her future endeavors."