SFA gender settlement ‘historic,’ Beaumont attorney says

A local law firm has reached what it’s describing as the largest settlement in a gender discrimination lawsuit ever seen against the East Texas university involved.

Stephen F. Austin University alumna and former interim dean of the Nelson Rusche College of Business Geralyn McClure Franklin recently was awarded a $225,000 settlement from the university, Beaumont attorney David Bernsen said.

The decision comes after nearly two years of litigation and shortly before the trial was set to begin.

A representative for the university did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the legal complaint, Franklin was the only female finalist to become the permanent dean of the college of business. At the time she had 19 years of experience as a dean, associate dean, division director and department chair at five universities, among other qualifications.

The complaint says Franklin was the “most highly qualified candidate” in the first search but the search committee declined to choose any of the four finalists. Instead, it made the head of the search committee the new interim dean of the college of business and began a new search with the understanding that none of the original four finalists would be reconsidered.

The complaint alleges a woman also was the “most highly qualified candidate” in the second search, but a man was selected to become the next dean for the college of business.

“SFA has a history of engaging in nepotism, which frequently results in discrimination against more qualified candidates including women,” the complaint says.

Bernsen described Franklin’s lawsuit against her alma mater as “gut wrenching” for her, but she knew something needed to change.

“Because of her love of the university she thought it was necessary … to make her university a better place,” he said in an interview with The Enterprise.

In an earlier news release, Bernsen called the settlement “historic.”

“SFA has never paid this amount to settle a gender discrimination case brought by a single individual,” Bernsen said in a news release. “For Dr. Franklin, however, this lawsuit was never about money — it was about change and being an example for other female employees, faculty and students by standing up to the status quo.”

Reflecting on the lawsuit’s importance to Southeast and East Texas, Bernsen told the Enterprise that he hopes his daughter, granddaughters and all women will be judged on their talents and abilities instead of their gender.

“When we say East Texas, it’s important because we live and work here and this sends a message: Don’t discriminate against females,” he said.

Since the lawsuit, the university has hired multiple women to high-level positions, including a dean and associate provost. And since April 2019, for the first time in the university’s history, a majority of the Board of Regents are female.

“It sends a message, I believe, that grievances will be addressed and justice will be solved,” Bernsen said.

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