The University of Iowa agreed to pay Tracey Griesbaum $1.5 million Friday to end a legal battle that began nearly three years ago with the firing of the former field hockey coach.
After settling costly discrimination lawsuits, UI’s athletic director remains confident he was ‘in the right’
The University of Iowa agreed to a five-year contract extension in 2016 with Athletic Director Gary Barta. The deal guarantees Barta $4.6 million in compensation through June 2021 and increases his annual base salary from $400,000 to $550,000.
That’s a lot of money, so it’s fair to ask whether Barta deserves that kind of pay.
There’s no easy way to answer that question because there are so many ways of measuring the performance of an athletic director. Win-loss records? Attendance at games? Revenue and profits? Student participation? Fundraising?
Whatever yardstick one uses, it’s clear that anyone tasked with managing more than 200 full-time workers and a budget of $100 million should possess some base-level managerial skills. Among those would be the ability to prevent, or at least recognize, a hostile work environment and discriminatory employment practices.
By that one measure, Barta seems not just undeserving of a multi-million-dollar contract, but unqualified to manage anything bigger than a Sunglass Hut at the mall.
Two months ago, the University of Iowa agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle discrimination lawsuits filed by former senior associate athletic director Jane Meyer and her partner, former women’s field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum. The money will come from the cash-reserve account in the school’s athletic department, which does not rely on taxpayer support.
Trial evidence indicates Meyer never received an unsatisfactory job review from Barta, undercutting, if not disproving, the school’s claim that she deserved to be fired for poor work performance.
Perhaps the university was right, in which case Barta failed completely to hold accountable one of his top employees. Or perhaps Meyer was right, in which case Barta led a department that engaged in clear-cut workplace discrimination. In fact, both claims might be valid.
But what’s even more disturbing is Barta’s attitude in the wake of this extraordinarily expensive settlement.
On July 11, in his first public comments since the agreement was announced, Barta said he doesn’t feel, even in hindsight, that the department did anything wrong — at least nothing that would warrant a $6.5 million cashectomy. “We did what we thought was right at the time,” he said. “We still believe that, principally, we were in the right.”
He said he has never feared for his job or considered resigning, and that he remains “very confident with the decisions that we made and that I made. Tactically, I suppose you could always think of things that could have been improved upon.”
Asked if he felt personally responsible for costing the athletic department $6.5 million in cash reserves, he replied: “Because of the way I’m wired, yes. But in terms of the fact that (the settlement) was a decision that was endorsed by the entire university, technically, no.”
It sounds as if Barta wants everyone to know he takes full responsibility for this matter, even as he suggests that, technically, he’s not really at fault. The buck stops here, he says, while slipping the bill into someone else’s pocket. In fact, Barta sees himself as something of a victim in all this.
It doesn’t help that on May 5, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld said the school was going to initiate an investigation into the UI’s employment practices, beginning with the athletic department. Today, more than two months later, that investigation has yet to be launched.
“Over the years, I have had to develop a thick skin,” Barta says. “I’m not going to lie and say that the last several months were easy. They weren’t. They were difficult … I’m angry at what happened. But I’m moving forward. Literally, I still have people who see me on the street and say, ‘How are you doing? Are you OK?’ And the answer is, ‘Absolutely.’”
The former Iowa athletics administrator was awarded $1.43 million by a Polk County jury.
Well, that will come as quite a relief to the school’s financial backers. While they’re laboring to backfill the $6.5 million hole in the cash-reserves account, they can pause to breathe a collective sigh of relief knowing that Barta hasn’t been incapacitated by the hardship of using other people’s money to clean up his mess.
Usually, when a lawsuit results in a payout of this magnitude, the people who have to a write the check undergo a fair amount of reflection, soul-searching and self-examination. They acknowledge their failings, tally up the “lessons learned” and devise a plan to ensure something like that never happens again.
Barta, however, seems determined to maintain the status quo.
“I’m not going to start making decisions based on what’s legally going to protect me the most,” he said. “I’m going to do what I’ve tried to do for 30 years. I’m going to try to do what I think is right.”
A jury of fellow Iowans concluded Barta presided over an athletics department infected by discrimination. If that’s the result of doing what he thinks is right, he’s failing not only to protect the department financially but also to uphold the basic decency Iowans expect of their public employees.
More denial in the Statehouse
Gary Barta isn’t the only public official in Iowa who fails to recognize discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Last week, jurors awarded $2.2 million in damages to a former Iowa Senate Republican caucus staffer, Kirsten Anderson, who claimed she faced discrimination and retaliation and was fired just hours after complaining about sexual harassment.
Responding to that decision, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, a Republican from Shell Rock, issued a statement that ignored the evidence presented at trial, including allegations of offensive jokes and demeaning comments from Senate Republican analyst Jim Friedrich, a man who still works for the caucus.
“Kirsten Anderson was terminated only for her poor work product and absolutely no other reason,” Dix said. Then, “The Senate Republican caucus is now a safe environment and there is no tolerance for any and all types of harassment.”
Really? It’s certainly a “safe environment” for Friedrich. As for everyone else, the jury has spoken.
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