Zink files lawsuit against SRU, PASSHE, President Behre

Former SRU Provost takes legal action with five-count suit

Published by Matthew Glover and Nina Cipriani, Date: September 23, 2022
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Graphic timeline by Nina Cipriani

Former SRU Provost Abbey Zink filed a five-count lawsuit against SRU President William Behre, the university and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) on Aug. 12. 

The Rocket obtained court documents detailing each violation and a history of the events. Many of the violations include the defendants either restricting or punishing Zink for expressing her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. 

Zink’s legal team declined to comment on the matter.

The first four counts of the suit are against only Behre, and the fifth count is against SRU and PASSHE. 

The Rocket reached out to the Office of the President about the lawsuit. They declined to comment.

“Because Dr. Zink has filed administrative legal claims against the University and we do not comment on ongoing litigation, we have no comment on her specific claims,” Interim Director of Communication Justin Zackal said in an email.

Count one focused on the retaliation Zink allegedly faced for exercising her right to free speech. The document said Zink believes Behre violated her right as a citizen to discuss matters of public concern and that he misused his powers under state law. 

Count two explained the violation of procedural due process. It explained that Zink was allegedly removed from her tenured position within SRU’s English Department without notice or an opportunity for rebuttal. 

Under counts one, two and three, Zink would be reinstated to her tenured position in the Department of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Writing.

Count three described the violation of substantive due process. It alleges that Zink was terminated based on her speech and/or gender, calling it “arbitrary, unreasonable and not rationally related to any legitimate interest of SRU or President Behre.”

Count four discussed retaliation. It said Zink was allegedly discriminated and retaliated against for supporting Amir Mohammadi, the former senior vice president of administration, global engagement and economic development.  Mohammadi has settled his own discrimination case with SRU. 

Count five covered discrimination on the basis of sex. The document said Zink was the first female provost at SRU and was allegedly replaced by “a less qualified and less experienced male.” Zink said SRU’s workplace culture is not supportive of women and that internal administrative hires and promotions have favored white men. 

Zink’s timeline

The court document explained a series of events that have happened since Zink was hired as the SRU provost in December 2019.

Zink took office on June 22, 2020. She was also given tenure as a professor in the English Department. 

On Sept. 13, 2021, SRU submitted its Comprehensive Planning Narrative (CPP) to PASSHE. A CPP is a document that details every program’s finances.

Vice President of Finance and Administration Carrie Birchbichler allegedly balanced the budget through the projected elimination of more than 30 full-time faculty positions, skewing the CPP projections by several million dollars to favor SRU, while decreasing institutional financial aid. 

On Nov. 12, 2021, SRU Trustee Jeff Smith asked the university if they had lied to PASSHE on the CPP. Behre responded that PASSHE knew exactly what was being reported, and they were fine with it. 

On Feb. 1, 2022, Behre wrote a performance evaluation praising her performance and accomplishments, saying “I believe that you have a bright future in higher education.” She received a $10,575 pay raise on Feb. 7. 

Weeks later on Feb. 21, 2022, Mohammadi sent a letter to PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein regarding SRU’s engineering program and the CPP. 

Before Zink was hired, SRU launched mechanical and civil engineering programs. Plans to build labs for those students were submitted in 2019-20, but construction needed for fall 2022 would not begin until April 2022.

Zink was concerned that the civil and mechanical engineering students were not provided the appropriate facilities and learning experience that SRU had promised. Engineering students at SRU pay an extra $80 per credit, even though they would not have access to fully functioning labs until spring 2022. 

As of April 4, 2022, construction had still not begun on labs needed for fall 2022. 

Zink emailed SRU trustee Matthew Lautman on March 3, 2022, saying she was “deeply concerned” that we still don’t have a plan to move forward with mechanical and civil engineering labs that students need for [f]all 2022.” In the same email, Zink mentioned Mohammadi when discussing concerns about being retaliated against.

In 2021-22, the cost of the engineering labs was no longer listed on the CPP. According to the court document, Zink continued to discuss issues involving accreditation and finances, but other administrators instead opted to blame previous administrators, former President Cheryl Norton and former Interim President and Provost Philip Way. Norton retired in 2017, and Way left SRU for another opportunity in 2019. 

On March 25, 2022, Behre sent Zink an email where he allegedly blamed her for failing to build positive relationships with peers. Zink contested the email, citing the glowing review she had received from him one month prior. 

“You are on notice that any adverse action that you take related to me will be viewed as retaliation for speaking up,” Zink said in an email to Behre. “I ask that you immediately cease and desist your bullying and demeaning behaviors toward me.” 

On April 4, 2022, from 2 p.m. to 2:50 p.m., PASSHE investigator Gretchen Mroczkowski interviewed Zink about financial improprieties and amorous relationship rumors. 

On the same day at 3:15 p.m., Behre removed Zink as provost in a meeting with former Chief Human Resources Officer Lynne Motyl. According to the court document, Zink was presented with a settlement and release—a brief temporary assignment and resignation—and was asked to sign it immediately. 

Zink refused to sign without legal counsel present. The document explained that this allegedly made Behre so angry that Motyl asked him to leave the room. Motyl did not know the cause of Zink’s termination. 

At 4:23 p.m., Behre appointed Michael Zieg to the acting provost. 

On April 8, 2022, 21 faculty members wrote a letter to Behre and the Council of Trustees supporting Zink.

“While we do not know the details behind this decision,” the letter read, “we know that Provost Zink has worked in often difficult circumstances, from quarantine to PASSHE reorganization to having to navigate a challenging workplace culture that we know is not always supportive of women.”

The document also said, “Administrators at SRU were aware of the discriminatory activity yet did nothing to stop it.”

On April 18, 2022, SRU’s fiscal review was complete. Mohammadi’s position was eliminated two days later. 

On April 25, 2022, Zink wrote to PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein to resign from her position as provost and continue at SRU as a tenured professor. According to the document, Behre had asked her to resign in this way. Behre then refused her resignation and terminated her employment, effective April 26, 2022. 

Case number 2:22-CV-1170 is considered a complaint in a civil action. 

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