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University of Arkansas Works to Clean Up Hiring Mess Caused by Petrino

5 min read

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has taken very deliberate steps to protect itself from liability for a laundry list of human resources violations by fired Head Football Coach Bobby Petrino.

Even Jessica Dorrell was subject to reporting their improper relationship once she signed on as an employee of the university.

Details of the scandal became readily available because the UA, as a public institution, is subject to the state Freedom of Information Act.

But the incident can serve to remind even private employers that HR policies are in place for a reason.

The circumstances of her hiring on March 20, his firing on April 10 and her resignation on April 17 provide a case study into the dynamics of human resources management gone tragically awry.

The public nature of the controversy exposes the steps taken to solve a messy interpersonal relationship problem, which included firing a highly successful coach who had restored glory to the Razorbacks football program.

"If this thing would’ve been allowed to fester, people in the Athletic Department would’ve seen that some people can get away with things others can’t," said Ben Shipley, president of the Western Arkansas Human Resource Association in Fort Smith. "It can eat an organization up from the inside.

"If Jeff Long caved in to situational ethics, you would have created all kinds of side collateral issues with other parts of the athletic department and the academic faculty."

The parallel ramifications at a private business are just as real. Common ground shared by the public-private sectors also is in play regarding the issue of sexual harassment.

The improper relationship between Petrino as supervisor and Dorrell as subordinate exposed the university to potential sexual harassment liability. That possibility existed even though the relationship was consensual.

That topic of sexual harassment, both consensual and non-consensual, is covered in the university’s policies and is the norm in public organizations across the nation. Similar non-fraternization policies can be found in the private sector, too.

The April 17 settlement between Dorrell and the University of Arkansas defused the sexual harassment issue as well as any other litigation that might have arisen, including any claims against Petrino.

"While Ms. Dorrell had a legitimate right to apply for and accept a position within the football program, the circumstances surrounding the former coach’s decision to hire her compromised her ability to be effective in such a position," said Jeff Long in a written statement when the settlement was announced.

"She and I believe she should have the opportunity to move on. As part of her resignation, Ms. Dorrell agreed she would not attempt to sell or profit from her affiliation with Razorback Athletics.

The University will pay Ms. Dorrell approximately $14,000 as part of a settlement and resolution of all matters between the parties."

She even got a letter of recommendation from Long as part of the deal.

During his review, Long discovered and reported that Petrino had given $20,000 to Dorrell that she used to buy an Acura during her first week on the job. This tidbit was likely more than just a curious detail.

Ben Shipley believes it was done to counter any potential claims of sexual harassment and more.

"That fact that he paid her money was pretty significant legally," said Shipley, who also is an attorney with the Cross Gunter Witherspoon & Galchus firm. "The statement regarding the $20,000 was done to mitigate her damages [against the university].

"The gift of the money implies that this was consensual and not unwelcome. That had a definite bearing on the amount of the settlement with her."

The hidden relationship between Petrino and Dorrell also violated the university’s conflict of interest policies and tainted a selection process in which he handed the job to her.

According to documents provided by the university, 23 candidates applied for the job of player development coordinator with experience greater than the four years credited to Dorrell. Nine of those candidates had double-digit years of experience that ranged from 10 to 21 years.

Despite the experience gap, Dorrell was selected as one of three finalists who were interviewed. All three coincidentally had four years of experience. The outcome seemed to defy the law of averages.

"That’s a big red flag," said Billie Reed, president of the North Arkansas Human Resources Association in Harrison. "You always want to have experience and qualifications. He obviously interfered with the hiring process, and his decisions are what led to her hiring. He abused the process."

"Years related experience" is the most significant line item in the applicant worksheets released by the University of Arkansas. However, school officials omitted another important field of information: the rating of all the candidates.

The rating system ranged from an A (met all basic and desirable qualifications) to F (met neither basic nor desirable qualifications). For now, what grades were assigned to the applicants remain shrouded.

Passing over a string of more qualified candidates wasn’t necessarily a codified violation of public policy, just as it wouldn’t be in the private sector.

However, her improper relationship with Petrino gave Dorrell an unfair and undisclosed advantage over other applicants and posed equal opportunity problems for the university.

With the two protagonists now removed from the picture, university officials are left to deal with 158 other applicants who didn’t get a fair shake.

"They could assert a cause of action because of her relationship with Coach Petrino," Shipley said. "That’s probably the most problematic of all."

His suggestion to solve this remaining problem is to rebid the job and specifically invite and personally contact every one of the potentially aggrieved applicants and accept applications for a full 30 days from any other interested individuals.

"That has the effect of lessening any damages," Shipley said. "If you do that, they’re going to have a hard time pressing any claims if the hiring process is conducted properly this time."

Long hasn’t revealed what action will be taken to remedy this remaining issue. For now, the job that Petrino said needed filling so desperately in March remains an empty slot, and the duties of student-athlete development coordinator are spread temporarily among the existing staff.

Dorrell subjected herself to some of the same policies that got Petrino fired when she signed the March 20 letter of acceptance offered by Jeff Long. The letter clearly stated she would be held accountable to abide by the rules.

"You agree to uphold ethical standards appropriate to your position, including but not limited to complying with all applicable laws, rules, regulation and conflict of interest policies and all other NCAA, SEC and University policies. You also agree to report suspected or known noncompliance with NCAA, SEC or University policies as may be required."

"Was she obligated to self-report?" said Little Rock attorney Phil Kaplan, who handles employment and labor cases. "It seems to me she was under the same obligation that he was."

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