Former SUNY-Cobleskill dean loses lawsuit
Official fought firing, claiming retaliation
COBLESKILL Claims that SUNY-Cobleskill officials retaliated against a former dean were dismissed by a jury Friday following a two-week trial in federal court.
Thomas J. Hickey, fired in 2009 from his position as dean of liberal arts and sciences, filed a lawsuit claiming the termination was tied to his speaking out against college policies he considered racially biased.
Hickey targeted the college and two officials, former President Donald Zingale and former Provost Anne C. Myers.
In salvos of court papers that followed, Hickey contended the college was recruiting minority students unable to graduate, for the purpose of meeting budgeting targets. Lawyers for the college and the state Attorney General’s Office responded by saying Hickey wasn’t doing a good job before he was fired and maintained his complaints about policy had nothing to do with it.
The trial before U.S. District Court Judge Mae A. D’Agostino began July 8 and ended July 19 with a jury rejecting all of Hickey’s claims.
At the end of deliberations, members of the jury answered “No” to whether Hickey established he was unlawfully retaliated against, to whether former President Zingale retaliated against Hickey, and to whether the college unlawfully retaliated against Hickey for engaging in a protected activity — speaking out.
Hickey’s attorney, Phil Steck, said Monday the jurors were given a complicated case made more difficult by a prior ruling.
Hickey’s claim early in the case was buttressed by contentions his First Amendment rights were violated when he was fired.
“As a free speech case, I felt the case would have been strong,” Steck said.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas J. McAvoy dismissed Hickey’s claims as they related to the First Amendment, as well as his claims college officials sabotaged his attempt to get another job as provost at SUNY-Delhi. McAvoy in that ruling said Hickey couldn’t prove that retaliation on the part of Myers and Zingale caused his failure to land the Delhi position.
SUNY-Cobleskill acting President Debra Thatcher issued a statement lauding the agriculture and technology college’s record in education. “We’re proud of SUNY-Cobleskill’s nearly 100-year record of educating students and preparing them for career success,” she said in the statement.
Hickey’s lawsuit contended that African-American students were disproportionately affected by the college’s admissions policies.
Thatcher, who took over as acting president a few months ago, three years after the lawsuit, said numbers prove Hickey’s claims to be false.
“SUNY-Cobleskill is committed to admitting students with diverse educational and social backgrounds. Our student body reflects the cultural diversity of the Empire State, and our faculty and staff go to exceptional lengths to help students succeed,” Thatcher said in the statement.
Hickey did not return a call for comment Monday.