Fired for Doing the Right Thing: An Interview with College Administrator in Sex Discrimination Case
Update: Michelle Henley (previously known as Michelle Jaureguito) and Laurel Wartluft settled their lawsuits in fall 2015. Paul Thein settled in May 2017 for $2 million.
In the last 33 years, AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund has supported more than 100 cases. But demonstrating our impact isn’t about the numbers; it’s about the stories of the people we support.
Former Feather River employees Paul Thein, Laurel Wartluft, and Michelle Henley allege that, among other claims, Feather River violated their rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by retaliating against them for complaining about gender discrimination on campus. More than eight years after they first filed suit, the plaintiffs hope that their long journey for vindication is almost over.
At the beginning of his career in education, Thein wanted to coach. His own coaches had been important mentors in his life. “I entered higher education because I was mentored by some good people, and I wanted to give back.” Observing his success as a coach, a colleague urged him to pursue higher education administration. He eventually became the vice president of student affairs at Feather River.
Through his work at Feather River, Thein witnessed firsthand the value that community colleges provide to students. “The college [really helped] young people who have the talent and need a place to sharpen their skills, or it was a more affordable option for a working parent and provided a great start. Graduation, when you see those students excel — that’s the reward. There is nothing better than seeing students succeed.”
In the summer of 2005, things changed. Thein became concerned that the college wasn’t properly complying with Title IX and urged the college to remedy what he considered discrimination in their athletic programs. He advocated for equal treatment of women’s and men’s coaching staff, supporting the hire of Wartluft as a full-time, tenured head coach. During the same summer, Thein and Henley (who directed the school’s Upward Bound and Talent Search programs for disadvantaged students) received complaints that a staff member was sexually harassing students. When they reported the complaints, they say, the college president told them to watch out for retaliation by the staff member in question’s father, a senior faculty member.
The warning turned out to be justified. Not long after reporting the students’ complaints, Thein was abruptly placed on administrative leave and informed that his contract would not be renewed.
When he initially filed the lawsuit, says Thein, “I was very naïve. It was so cut and dried in my mind. I’d lost my job, and I knew it was not right. I thought I’d file, send them a wake-up call, and surely I’d be able to retain my position.” But he was disappointed. “I never thought it would lead to this. I lost my job in September 2005, filed in 2006, and the wake-up call never really happened.”
Years later, still fighting for a fair result, he remembers how little he understood about the cost of a lawsuit. He didn’t realize that financial resources could determine whether he was able to pursue his claim. “We never would have had deep enough pockets to continue [on our own].”
The huge imbalance of resources became clear when the plaintiffs arrived for a hearing before the California State Personnel Board. “When we walked into the State Personnel Board, the attorneys on the other side — they were opening up laptops one after another, they had depositions all scanned and loaded, and we were wheeling in cardboard boxes. They had attorneys behind attorneys. We had three plaintiffs trying to work out of a Kinko’s.”
Overwhelmed and drained, they came to LAF for help in 2007. “AAUW’s support is so important. It’s fuel to the mind that lets you know you’re not in this by yourself,” says Thein. “The financial support is absolutely needed — to fight against a major college is nearly impossible. We would’ve been dead in the water because we wouldn’t have been able to pay for the case. … [The college] would have dumped us all early if it hadn’t been for my father, my family, and AAUW.”
Having that team made all the difference. “We really needed emotional support. I think every one of us felt we were being attacked, and knowing that AAUW was backing us really was an emotional comfort. We needed both.”Help us support more people fighting discrimination. Donate now
Thein has spoken to AAUW members across the country through LAF Case Support Travel Grants. “When I speak to anybody who is an AAUW member, I say thank you, and hope they’re an LAF supporter. It’s therapy for me to be around people who support what’s right. Every time I walk out feeling energized.”
Thein hopes his story will empower other educators to fight for fairness on their campuses. Now that Thein is settled as the president of the YMCA in Naples, Florida, we hope he’ll share his story with more AAUW audiences and galvanize support for educators who challenge discrimination and harassment. “I feel when I’m working with AAUW … somebody’s going to put a stop to this.”
AAUW is proud to support the cases of three faculty members who filed suit against their college, citing alleged gender discrimination and Title IX violations.
Title IX holds schools liable for sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Find out what you can do if you’re a victim of sexual harassment or sex discrimination on campus.