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One of the highest-ranking women ever in college sports administration has filed a sex discrimination suit against Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., claiming she was abruptly ousted from her position as director of athletics and fired from a tenured faculty post after she complained about gender inequity in the funding of the college’s sports programs. According to the suit, Eve Atkinson is the first woman in the United States to hold the post of director of athletics of a combined men’s and women’s program at a school in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I level with an NCAA I-AA football program. She is also the current president of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, the nation’s largest athletic conference, the suit says. Atkinson claims that after she publicly spoke out against the unequal funding of men’s and women’s sports at Lafayette, she was physically threatened by a high-ranking administrator and that college officials did nothing about it. When she continued to press for equal funding for women, she says, she was suddenly informed that she was being fired from both her jobs — director of athletics and professor — after 12 years of service. But in a statement released late Tuesday, Lafayette College said Atkinson never had tenure and that it decided to hire a new athletic director “because it believes that it is time for new leadership in the athletic department.” College spokesman Glenn Airgood also said Lafayette’s record of complying with gender discrimination laws in its sports programs is “one of the finest in the nation” and that the college will “vigorously defend” its decision not to continue Atkinson’s employment. Attorneys Alan B. Epstein, James Bucci and Brooke Madonna of Philadelphia-based Spector Gadon & Rosen filed the suit citing claims under Title VII, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and Title IX as well as breach of contract. Named as defendants are Lafayette College and its president, Arthur J. Rothkopf, who is an attorney. According to the suit, Atkinson’s entire adult life has been devoted to sports, beginning with a distinguished career as a student-athlete at Pennsylvania’s West Chester State College in the 1970s where she earned All-America swimming honors 12 times and was a member of the lacrosse and field hockey teams that were ranked first in the country. In 1978, she earned a master’s degree from West Chester and in 1991 earned a doctorate of education in sports administration from Temple University in Philadelphia. Before taking the job at Lafayette, the suit says, Atkinson served as the associate director of athletics at Temple; as director of women’s athletics at Hofstra University in New York; and as head coach of women’s swimming at three schools — Yale University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Temple. Breaking the glass ceiling in 1989, Atkinson was hired by Lafayette as director of athletics and professor and department head of physical education and athletics at Lafayette. After three years, the suit says, Atkinson was tenured and therefore could not be fired without “cause.” For 12 years, the suit says, Atkinson received “favorable performance reviews.” Among her accomplishments, the suit says, were a restructuring of the athletics and physical education departments; institution of new budgeting procedures; development of computer operations; and a leadership role in establishing a $26.5 million intramural and recreation center. In 1997, the suit says, Atkinson was elected president of the Division I-AA Directors of Athletics of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, becoming the first female president of a collegiate football association. Just this year, the suit says, Atkinson was one of seven national recipients of the “Role Model Recognition” award at the Celebration of Women 2001 Swimming Championship Banquet presented by USA Swimming, the NCAA and the Women’s Sports Foundation in honor of the 20th anniversary of NCAA women’s swimming and diving. But Atkinson claims her career at Lafayette took its own dive beginning in 1996 when she “raised issues of budget concerns and gender-based equality issues” by presenting a plan that would ensure compliance with the requirements of Title IX. In 1998, after the eighth version of the budget and equity plan was presented to the college’s board, the suit says Atkinson “was physically threatened and intimidated by her immediate supervisor, the Dean of Students, Herman Kissiah.” Atkinson claims she reported the incident to the college’s president and general counsel, but that “no corrective action was taken.” The retaliation began in April 1999, the suit says, when Atkinson was told she would no longer be supervising the areas of physical education, recreation and intramural. In November 1999, the suit says, Atkinson was notified that she was not being “reappointed” to her faculty post for the next academic year and that her final day of employment would be June 30, 2001. At the same time, the suit says, she was told that her job as athletics director would end the same day. The suit alleges that Atkinson’s firing was “related to her raising gender equity issues” and violated her tenure contract, which said she could be fired only for “cause.” Her abrupt dismissal, the suit says, was “part of a pattern and practice of discharging qualified female employees (especially apparent in the male-dominated field of college sports administration), and in retaliation against her for her insistence that Title IX anti-discrimination law be followed.” In its statement, Lafayette College said that while it normally does not comment on personnel matters, it was compelled to respond to Atkinson’s lawsuit due to “the seriousness of these allegations.” Lafayette spokesman Airgood said the college will defend the suit “on the grounds that Atkinson does not have tenure at Lafayette and that the decision to seek new leadership for the athletic department was not based on her gender, Title IX, or any other improper ground.” In response to Atkinson’s claim that her firing is the result of sex discrimination, Airgood said that Lafayette “has a very visible and aggressive policy of zero tolerance of discrimination in any form, including sex discrimination.” The suit, Atkinson v. Lafayette College, 01-cv-2141, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

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