Former UC Employee Charges Favoritism in Student Awards By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday October 04, 2005

A former UC Berkeley employee has sued the university charging, that she was laid off for criticizing her department head for awarding fellowships based on political favoritism rather than merit. 

In a complaint filed Sept. 15 in Alameda County Superior Court, Karen Schermerhorn, a former student affairs officer in the Department of Material Science and Engineering, alleged that department Chair Fiona Doyle restricted access to fellowships and “manipulated the [fellowship] competition to the benefit of her own research group.”  

Schermerhorn, who started working for UC Berkeley in 1975 and had served for more than three years as the department’s student affairs officer, was laid off in May 2004 as what she said her supervisors represented as a cost-saving measure. 

She is seeking more than $200,000 in damages. 

“She feels like it was completely retaliatory for her complaints over the fellowships,” said Schermerhorn’s attorney Shelley Buchanan of San Francisco. Schermerhorn has been working “a low-level retail job” since being laid off, Buchanan added. 

Besides UC Berkeley, the complaint also lists the UC Board of Regents and university employees Wanda Capece, Janice Zeppa, Rosemary Leb and Doyle as defendants. 

Doyle, who has since been promoted to executive associate dean for academic affairs at UC Berkeley, did not return phone calls for this story. 

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said UC officials had investigated Schermerhorn’s claims about the fellowships and her layoff and “found no indication of wrongdoing in either matter.” 

In the complaint, Schermerhorn alleges that she repeatedly complained about Doyle’s handling of the Jane Lewis Fellowship Fund and the Dimitri Vedensky Fund. 

Schermerhorn alleges that in the 2003-04 academic year, Doyle failed to advertise the competition for the Jane Lewis Fellowship. Instead, according to the complaint, Doyle used her position as chair of the fellowship committee to give fellowships only to students she invited to apply. 

Schermerhorn charges that Doyle allowed a professor to select students from his nanotechnology project to apply for the fellowship, while no other students working in the same field were given an opportunity to compete. 

“This rendered the ‘competition’ a non-competition in reality,” according to the complaint. 

Schermerhorn also alleges that Doyle manipulated the competition that year so that two of the four fellowships awarded to graduate students in the department were members of Doyle’s own research group. 

One of the students, according to the complaint, was Hongyuan Duan, who was awarded a fellowship without transcripts or letters of recommendation. 

Graduate students were awarded $415,000 from the Jane Lewis Fellowship Fund in 2004-05, according to Buchanan. 

Schermerhorn also alleges in the complaint that Doyle unilaterally changed requirements for the Vedensky Fund to help junior faculty at the expense of graduate students. 

On May 27, 2004, Doyle alerted Schermerhorn that she had been laid off “due to budget cuts and demanded that she leave the premises immediately.” 

Along with the complaint, Schermerhorn has forwarded to the court over 30 letters of support from graduate students and department faculty. 

Professor Anderas Glaeser e-mailed the department, calling the execution of the layoff “a disgrace” and added that the layoff would negatively impact “graduate student recruiting, graduate admissions, graduate student morale and retention and future support for the department from our current and former graduate students.” 

As student services officer, Schermerhorn processed applications and administered fellowships for the department’s graduate students. 

Gilmore said the university review found that the department had a legitimate basis for cutting Schemerhorn’s position to deal with funding cuts.