Opinion: Meyer Case Costly and Embarrassing for Iowa

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Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA)

A $1.4 million judgment might be small compared to the University of Iowa's $100 million athletics budget, but we hope that the award in the Jane Meyer case sends the message.

Iowa juries are not known for handing out million-dollar judgments willy-nilly, so a verdict last week was noteworthy not only for the amount awarded but for the high-profile defendant.

Jurors in Polk County said Jane Meyer should receive $1.43 million in damages from her former employer, the University of Iowa. Meyer was senior associate athletic director from 2001 until her reassignment and subsequent firing in September 2014.

The 57-year-old Meyer went five-for-five with the jury in her lawsuit's claims of gender discrimination, sexual-orientation discrimination, retaliation violations, whisteblower violations and unequal pay.

Barring a complete reversal later in the legal process, this is shaping up to be an embarrassing and marginally expensive lesson for the University of Iowa in general and its Athletics Department in particular.

Even if the university somehow winds up not paying Meyer a cent, it should be embarrassed. Taking away duties from a senior administrator (a gay woman in her 50s), then hiring someone to perform essentially those same duties — and paying him $70,000 a year more? How to defend that? The attorney general's team tried to defend it, but the jury didn't buy it.

So, with embarrassment established, how expensive will it be for the University of Iowa? This case isn't closed. The university could appeal, and meanwhile Meyer's lawyers will ask the judge to award her about $2 million more — to cover her legal fees and multiply her back-pay award.

On top of that, another lawsuit, filed by Tracey Griesbaum, Meyer's partner and a fired UI coach, is scheduled for trial in June.

Now, for most businesses and institutions, a judgment of even $1.43 million would be a substantial hit. But remember, we're not talking about UI academic programs, which are under the gun to tighten belts and extract more tuition dollars from students. We're discussing University of Iowa athletics here.

This fiscal year, its official budget tops $100 million for the first time. The Hawkeyes compete in two dozen sports.

Football coach Kirk Ferentz, whose undefeated 2015 regular season and Rose Bowl appearance, among other achievements, took place during fiscal 2016, received $1 million just in bonuses. Overall, the department's coaches received $20 million in salaries, bonuses and benefits. A few years back, the athletic department opened a Hawkeye football operations facility — price tag $55 million.

In the context of those big numbers, paying Jane Meyer $1.43 million might seem like a relative slap on the wrist. However, like a referee's technical foul assessed against a worked-up Fran McCaffery, we hope the jury's ruling sends an important message to the University of Iowa and especially its Athletics Department.

Editorials reflect the consensus of the Telegraph Herald Editorial Board.

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May 10, 2017


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