Argersinger lawsuit dismissed by federal judge

By Gus Bode

Former Chancellor Jo Ann Argersinger’s lawsuit against the University was dismissed Tuesday after a federal judge ruled that her allegations of wrongful termination by the Board of Trustees and discrimination by the SIU administration lacked factual validity.

U.S. District Judge Jeanne E. Scott delivered the opinion after both the University and Argersinger filed motions for summary judgment in response to allegations that the BOT violated Argersinger’s constitutional due process when it fired her, and that the termination was retaliation for her exercising her First Amendment right to speak on matters of public concern.

Scott also dismissed Argersinger’s claims of sexual discrimination and civil rights violations stemming from actions taken by the administration regarding the adjustment of her salary as a professor of history following the termination.


Peter Ruger, SIU general counsel, said the dismissal represents what he hopes is the final victory in the 38-month legal battle that began with Argersinger’s termination.

“This case is closed,” Ruger said. “In other words, it’s a complete victory for the Board of Trustees, the former president, the former chancellor and the University. All of her claims were rejected by the court.”

Ronald Osman, the attorney representing Argersinger, does not think the judge’s decision is so clear-cut, and he thinks that several points in the court’s opinion leave room for appeal.

The judge admitted the University violated Argersinger’s due process when it terminated her without providing her six months notice, but Argersinger was not suing for breach of contract; she was seeking judgment against the individuals who fired her. In order to collect damages from former SIU President Ted Sanders and the members of the BOT, Argersinger would have to overcome their qualified immunity, a term that provides state officials with protection in situations where tough decisions must be made.

The court said that protection would not apply only if the board and Sanders “were clearly on notice that their actions would violate established constitutional principles” when they terminated Argersinger. The judge concluded that Argersinger’s complaint did not present enough factual evidence or provide similar case precedents to overcome their qualified immunity.

“It’s a throwback to the king can do no wrong,” Osman said. “You can sue them, you just can’t collect.”

Osman said the decision is disappointing, and that he and his legal staff will analyze the opinion and discuss with Argersinger how they plan to proceed with further legal action.


The first 40 pages of the court’s 55-page decision present the facts surrounding Argersinger’s termination and describe in detail a rocky relationship between Argersinger and Sanders that gradually eroded in her 11-month tenure as chancellor.

The conflict began in Argersinger’s first month as chancellor, according to the facts of the case. She voiced opposition to a Shared Service Center that would centralize the purchasing functions of the SIUC and SIUE campuses. The University hired the Arthur Anderson accounting firm to prepare consultation reports regarding the purchasing center. Argersinger said she thought a better quality of work would be received if the University let other firms competitively bid for the contract.

The facts state that she felt so strongly about the matter that she directed William Capie, associate vice chancellor for administration, to draft a report analyzing suggestions made by Anderson. Capie concluded that the report was “filled with misstatements and erroneous conclusions.” The facts also state that Argersinger never told Sanders about Capie’s report and that he learned about it when a reporter in the local media asked him about it.

Osman contends that Argersinger told Sanders about Capie’s report regarding Anderson’s consultation, and the fact that the court said Sanders never knew about it illustrates how the court may have used and excluded certain facts to further its opinion.

“There are seven times as many facts you could pick out that I think would support Dr. Argersinger,” Osman said.

The fact that Argersinger would make comments in public to the media and campus groups before discussing matters privately with Sanders and the board is represented by several circumstances in the facts the court used to decide the case.

John Jackson, former SIUC interim chancellor, resigned as provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs less than three months after Argersinger assumed the leadership role at SIUC. In a deposition, he said he resigned because of various disagreements with Argersinger and that it was his opinion that “she would upbraid people in public without first sharing those concerns in private and that she ran the chancellor’s office in a disorganized fashion.”

The problems between Argersinger and Sanders had become so serious in January of 1999 that Sanders had to have his secretary attend their meetings and record minutes because of “Argersinger’s failure to follow through on requests made to her,” according to Sanders’ deposition. The facts state that one month after this meeting, Sanders informed Argersinger that “if they could not remedy the problem in their working relationship, she could no longer continue as chancellor.”

Argersinger contends the conversation never took place and that she spoke with Sanders about BOT member John Brewster’s disappointment with the University wasting so much time on putting together a University style manual. In a previous meeting, Brewster also told Argersinger to “not go there” when she told him Sanders was interfering with campus matters. In his deposition, Brewster said he told Argersinger that she was dealing with a president that had 100 percent confidence in the BOT.

A main argument made by Argersinger is that the Board fired her in retaliation to several instances in which she spoke about issues of public concern when her opinion differed with that of Sanders and the Board. In addition to using the Anderson firm for consultation, Argersinger disagreed with the University using interest from state tuition dollars to pay for lobbyists. She also felt a contract between Harry L. Crisp and the University involving the exclusive rights to sell beverages at athletic events was improper. Argersinger contends these differences in opinion led to her termination.

But the court said Argersinger never presented enough evidence to link the reason for her termination to her differences of opinion with Sanders and the Board. When Argersinger disagreed with Sanders about the use of the Anderson firm, she relied on a single conversation with the former president to argue it as a deciding factor in the board terminating her.

“The defendants were angered and frustrated by what they viewed as Argersinger’s attacks on the content of the report on the Shared Service Center,” the court opined, “but no evidence indicated their action in firing her was motivated by her one question months earlier about the propriety of the Anderson contract.”

Allegations of sexual discrimination and civil rights violations stemmed from how Argersinger was treated by the University after she was fired.

Argersinger announced to the media that she had been fired at a press conference before the BOT announced her termination at its regularly scheduled meeting days later. She was allowed to stay at SIUC as a tenured history professor after being fired, and her salary was reduced from $155,000 to $66,159. The court found that she was unable to produce an example of an employee who had received better treatment by the University in the same situation.

Argersinger presented former Chancellor John Guyon as proof of somebody who received better treatment by the University. He was asked to resign as chancellor in 1994, but he negotiated with the BOT. He was allowed to keep his chancellor salary of $144,000 for the remaining two years he was with the University before he retired.

The court found that Guyon’s situation was nothing like Argersinger’s.

“He had been with the University for more than 20 years; Argersinger had been there 11 months,” the court said. “He negotiated with Sanders when he was asked to resign; Argersinger issued a press release. Paying a resigning chancellor an annual salary of $144,000 for the final 16 months before retirement is simply not comparable to paying that sum to a tenured history professor for years to come.”

The decision has limited the chance Argersinger has at ever successfully bringing suit against the University. If the judge had thought Argersinger’s arguments were in the same league as the University’s, she could have let a jury decide. But Argersinger’s arguments were so unconvincing to the judge that every allegation was dismissed.

Osman said that he and his legal staff have the next 30 days to decide whether to appeal the court’s decision. The next level of appeals is the 7th Federal District Court in Chicago. Osman said he and Argersinger will have to sit down in the future to decide if that is where they want to go. Argersinger was unavailable for comment.

Reporter Brett Nauman can be reached at [email protected]


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