CMU administration involved in court battle with former professor over sabbatical, supplemental pay

A former geology professor at Central Michigan University and her husband, a former student and leader in slapping University President George Ross and Provost Gary Shapiro with a vote of "no confidence" last spring, are embroiled in a court battle with university administrators over money both sides say is owed to them.

Kathleen Benison, a former professor of geology, and her husband, Christopher Benison, a former student at CMU, filed a lawsuit against Ross, Shapiro and Ian Davison, dean of the College of Science and Technology, in U.S. District Court in Bay City on Nov. 28, seeking more than $75,000 in costs and lost pay.

In the complaint, obtained Wednesday by Central Michigan Life, Kathleen alleges Davison wrongfully denied her a promotional salary supplemental pay increase of $7,250, and Ross and Shapiro shot down several appeals made during her spring 2012 sabbatical because of her relationship to Christopher, a student and active member of the Academic Senate.

Amid heated contract negotiations between CMU and its Faculty Association in fall 2011, Christopher Benison launched the registered student organization Students for Faculty and was one of two academic senators to initiate a "no confidence" vote against Ross and Shapiro that was endorsed by several departments on campus. In the complaint, the Benisons allege Ross, Shapiro and Davison, who publicly supported the president and provost, "retaliated ... because of his decision to seek and promote a vote of 'no confidence'."

Kathleen received a pay supplement in fall 2008 after being promoted from associate professor to professor, said attorney Brad Glazier of Bos & Glazier, P.L.C., a Lansing-based law firm representing the Benisons. Glazier said Benison is not aware of anyone in the geology department who has been turned down for a pay supplement in the past.

The lawsuit comes about four months after the CMU Board of Trustees, on behalf of the university, first filed suit against Kathleen Benison, alleging a breach of contract on her sabbatical leave.

In a complaint filed July 23 in Isabella County Trial Court, obtained Thursday by CM Life, the university is demanding Kathleen Benison refund $62,958.25 after resigning from her job at the university in June to take a job as associate professor of geology at West Virginia University. Benison, who went on sabbatical from Jan. 9 to May 22, was compensated $41,594.49 in salary payments, $17,067.76 in health insurance benefits and a $4,296 tuition waiver for Christopher to attend CMU.

CMU is being represented by attorney Michael E. Cavanaugh of Lansing-based Fraser Trebilcock Davis & Dunlap, P.C.

A letter to Kathleen Benison from Shapiro on Dec. 7, 2010, shortly after her sabbatical was approved, included three requirements to receive full salary during her time off, including that she return to CMU for at least one academic year.

She electronically signed an agreement on Jan. 13, 2011 that stated: "I agree to return to the university in my regular assignment for one full contractual period following the termination of my leave or to refund the compensation paid to me by CMU for the period of my leave."

"(Her) promise was clear, definite and unequivocal," CMU says in the complaint.

She issued her letter of resignation on June 6, citing the wrongful denial of the salary supplement and "failure of (Ross, Shapiro and Davison) to meet CMU deadlines for consideration of her appeal and the increasingly hostile environment created."

"Her working conditions were so intolerable, she had to resign," Glazier said Thursday.

Asked why Glazier waited nearly three months to alert the media, he said the university has declined an offer to enter into mediation and begun telling its professors not to talk to him.

"I want to get my client's side of the story out in public," he said.

Both suits remain in initial discovery mode. Manuel Rupe, CMU's general counsel, declined comment Thursday.


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