The University of Iowa’s Athletics Department will reimburse the state’s general fund for $2 million that will be used to settle a racial bias lawsuit filed by twelve former football players.
In a statement read to Iowa House members at a March 9 meeting of an Appropriations subcommittee, University President Barbara Wilson said she made the decision after “listening to the concerns of Iowans, and in consultation with the Board of Regents leadership.” She noted that the Athletics Department “is a self-sustaining unit that does not receive any tuition revenue or tax revenue.”
The Iowa Attorney General’s office negotiated the $4.175 million deal to settle the lawsuit, which claimed the football program and several coaches created a racially hostile environment for players. It was the fourth time the Athletics Department has paid to settle a discrimination lawsuit since Gary Barta became athletics director, but the first time a deal required the state’s general fund to cover part of the expenses.
The settlement does not require the university to admit wrongdoing. Even so, head football coach Kirk Ferentz said in a statement he was “greatly disappointed” by the outcome. He and other coaches who were named defendants had sought to have the case dismissed.
“CLEAR PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY IS NECESSARY”
Two members of the State Appeal Board, State Treasurer Roby Smith and Department of Management Director Kraig Paulsen, approved the settlement on March 6 over the objections of the third member, State Auditor Rob Sand.
Sand argued that Iowa taxpayers should not be on the hook for wrongdoing when the department collects “tens of millions” of dollars annual under a Big Ten TV network deal. He said “Clear personal accountability is necessary,” and he would not approve the settlement “unless Gary Barta is no longer employed at the University and forfeits any severance or similar pay.”
Paulsen and Smith felt the settlement was in the state’s financial interests, though Smith said during the meeting, “Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable and should not be tolerated.” He encouraged the university “to re-examine its relationship with not only Gary Barta, but [offensive coordinator] Brian Ferentz and others named in recent lawsuits.”
Barta’s current contract runs until 2024. The previous university President Bruce Harreld extended the athletics director’s contract twice, most recently in 2019, even though the university had agreed in 2017 to pay $6.5 million to settle discrimination lawsuits filed by two former female department employees.
PRESSURE FROM THE LEGISLATURE
Sand wasn’t the only elected official upset by recent developments. Republican State Senator Annette Sweeney characterized Barta as a “stench hanging over our great university” in a March 6 speech delivered on the Iowa Senate floor.
Sweeney said Wilson should tell Barta to “resign immediately or be relieved of his duties.” She also called on the state legislature to review the budget for the Iowa Board of Regents (which oversees the state’s universities) “and hold it until the stench over Iowa City is dismissed.”
During the March 6 State Appeal Board meeting, Paulsen (a former Iowa House speaker) said the legislature should consider the “public policy question” of whether the state’s general fund should pay to settle lawsuits related to University of Iowa athletics or health care.
That process began on March 8, when House Appropriations Committee chair Gary Mohr introduced House Study Bill 229. The bill would retroactively require state universities to reimburse the state treasury for “an award or judgment on a claim relating to the conduct or actions of an employee of an athletic department.” (Appropriations bills are not subject to the legislature’s “funnel” deadlines.)
Mohr immediately assigned the bill to a subcommittee, which met for about three minutes on the morning of March 9. First, a Board of Regents employee read out Wilson’s statement promising to use $2 million in athletics department funds to pay back the state.
The subcommittee chair, Republican State Representative Carter Nordman, said he appreciated Wilson’s decision. He said he wasn’t sure whether the reimbursement would be happening “without the pressure from Iowans and some members in the legislature,” so the subcommittee would advance the bill to cover “future settlements of lawsuits.”
Nordman and the other subcommittee members—Republican Taylor Collins and Democrat Sean Bagniewski—agreed to move the bill to the full House Appropriations Committee.
Asked about the university’s plan to reimburse the state $2 million, Sand said during a March 9 news conference he was “delighted” Wilson listened to his concerns and “to the outcry from taxpayers who wanted real accountability,” adding that he “would like a copy of that check mailed to this room, 111 in the state capitol building, Des Moines, Iowa 50319.”
Sand said he hadn’t read the bill just advanced by the House Appropriations subcommittee. He has voted against four settlements that came before the State Appeal Board, because they didn’t demand personal accountability from the perpetrators of harassment. He said state law already allows the state to sue individuals responsible for “willful and wanton” misconduct to get dollars repaid in settlements resulting from that individual’s behavior. He would like the legislature to make such lawsuits mandatory.
Top photo: Akrum Wadley scores a touchdown against Penn State on September 23, 2017, in a photo first published on the University of Iowa’s Hawkeye Sports website. Wadley was the lead plaintiff in a racial bias lawsuit settled this week for $4.175 million.