A state appeals court upheld a jury verdict of nearly $5 million—three-quarters of that punitive damages—against an historically black college for discriminating against a white employee.

One of its many sins that were meticulously laid out by the court? Deleting incriminating emails from the senior official who targeted the white employee.

Beverly Wilkins, a white woman from a poor family, steadily rose through the ranks of Missouri’s Harris-Stowe State University, from adjunct to full-time instructor (off the tenure track). She had regular contract renewals for eight years and “excellent reviews” within her majority-black Teacher Education Department, according to the appeals court’s summary.

When Latisha Smith was temporarily made co-chair of the department, “a faculty member” complained to top university officials that Smith had “repeatedly proclaimed her belief in ‘black power’” and her “flagrant prejudice should not be tolerated or accepted.” One of those officials told the complainer to drop it or any chance at tenure “would be jeopardized.”

Smith was later made dean, becoming Wilkins’ supervisor, and she apparently exacted her revenge by putting Wilkins’ name on a termination list as part of a budget-neutral “reorganization” that saw two faculty members dumped and their positions rehired later.

Harris-Stowe is required by its own policies to terminate non-adjunct instructors with less seniority—two of which, both African Americans, had less than Wilkins—yet the university refused to tell her why she was dumped. Despite acknowledging that Wilkins had accused them of race discrimination, the university never investigated her claims, which also violated its own rules.


“In this period of budget cutting” when Harris-Stowe was trying to plug a fiscal hole, it quickly hired two black professors to replace Wilkins, costing the school an extra $23,000. One was explicitly described as “black” in an official’s email proposing her for the position.

After Wilkins sued for discrimination and retaliation and the trial court ordered the university to preserve Smith’s email account, its board deleted her email account. The judge punished the school by deeming “admitted” that Smith had said she wanted to make the department “blacker” and recommended Wilkins’ termination.


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