Fired President Sues CCCU, Claims $2 Million Owed
[Updated 10:23 a.m. Thurs., Feb 13, with CCCU official reaction.]
After a "careful investigation," the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) in October fired its president after less than 10 months on the job. On Wednesday [Feb. 12], Edward O. Blews Jr. filed suit, claiming the CCCU breached his five-year contract, tarnished his reputation, and owes him more than $2 million in compensation.
In response, the CCCU said it was "surprised and disappointed" Blews had broken from a required Christian mediation process, but the organization "stands ready to defend its decision to make a presidential transition."
Lawsuits only tell one side of a story. But if sustained, the alleged outstanding sum could prove challenging for the Washington D.C.-based association, which represents 174 "intentionally Christ-centered institutions" from 20 countries, to pay out.
According to the lawsuit, attempts at biblical conflict resolution (described below) between Blews and the CCCU have not borne fruit. A November 25 meeting failed to reach a resolution, and a second meeting proposed by Blews for January 29 was declined by the CCCU until March.
But Blews indicates he is filing suit now because "his reputation has been tarnished by CCCU's damaging press release" that referenced an "investigation," and because he has not been paid any salary since his October firing. (The lawsuit was filed on the day the CCCU began hosting a significant February conference in Los Angeles that was one of the issues surrounding Blews's firing.)
The CCCU issued a short response the following morning [Thursday, Feb. 13]:
The CCCU was surprised and disappointed to hear that Mr. Blews filed a lawsuit yesterday and then sent the complaint to news outlets, particularly since we had just recently agreed to the date he proposed for mediation of March 18. A Christian mediation process is required by his presidential contract before the filing of a lawsuit, and it is in keeping with our shared faith commitment to litigate only after exhausting all other options. The CCCU remains committed to the mediation process, but it also stands ready to defend its decision to make a presidential transition.
Blews claims he "did not commit any legal, financial, moral, or ethical wrongdoing or impropriety as CCCU President," and thus, according to his hiring agreement, the CCCU owes him $2,204,894.72 through December 2017 (the remainder of his contract), but has only offered him $200,000 and no benefits.
"CCCU has no grounds for terminating Dr. Blews for cause," claims the lawsuit. "It is simply trying to avoid paying Dr. Blews the payments he is contractually entitled to upon a unilateral termination without cause."
Blews claims that even for termination with cause, the hiring agreement stipulates he still be paid about $1 million (two years' worth of his base salary of about $304,000 plus benefits and accrued time).
A lengthy January report by World magazine foreshadowed such a showdown, noting:
Blews' contract may leave the CCCU in a financial bind: When he first met the staff in July 2012, he boasted that his "ironclad five-year contract" could not be voided even if he was fired with cause. ... The Council could pay as much as $1.6 million over five years—a lot of money for an organization that cleared only $33,299 in fiscal 2011.
[For comparison, the CCCU netted $49,304 in fiscal 2012 out of more than $13 million in revenue minus expenses, and has more than $7.6 million in net assets, according to its most recent public audit. In his lawsuit, Blews claims he plugged a sizable budget deficit so that the CCCU could close fiscal 2013 with another surplus, and claims the 2013-14 budget "addressed and resolved the structural CCCU deficit."]
In his lawsuit, Blews references the World article as further damaging his reputation, stating the article was "filled with such outrageous allegations that apparently those [anonymous] sources were not willing to take responsibility for them."
According to the hiring agreement, as cited in Blews's lawsuit, his contract could be terminated for only three causes:
Action by President that is grossly immoral and felonious;
An explicit and intentional denial by President of his Christian faith;
Intentional failure by President to give best efforts to perform his responsibilities as President and Chief Executive Officer of CCCU.
Under the first two, the CCCU could stop paying Blews the day it fired him. But under the third, the contract obligates the CCCU to still give him his base salary and benefits for 24 months.
Blews denies any of the three causes occured. Instead he claims in the lawsuit that he was "devoting significant time and efforts" addressing "serious problems within the organization," including organizational dysfunction and unhappiness among employees. He also claims the CCCU board produced a "devastating report about him based upon interviews of CCCU's employees," but did not give him any "reasonable opportunity to defend himself" from charges such as failing to "execute decisions in a timely fashion," schedule or attend meetings as promised, and "plan [the] 2014 international forum in a timely manner."
The lawsuit notes:
Perhaps most striking was the fact that the investigators inserted the words "intentional failure" and "intentionally failing" into almost all of the report's subject headings.... It could not be coincidental that the report repeatedly echoed the exact language of the Employment Agreement's provision for termination for cause—"intentional failure."
Instead, Blews claims he had "been working extraordinarily hard, far beyond the call of duty," for the CCCU, and had "achieved remarkable progress for the organization in that short period of time," including eliminating a substantial budget deficit and establishing a balanced budget for the next fiscal year.
However, Inside Higher Ed notes:
Former council employees offered a very different view of Blews's time at CCCU in interviews in recent months, describing him as out of his depth at the helm of a much larger organization than he had ever led before, and controlling to the point that numerous key employees left the council within months of his arrival.
In a self-defense attached to the lawsuit, Blews acknowledges the CCCU board "critiquing my management in terms of timely responses to emails and telephone calls, time management and delegation, and off-putting communication of my authority as president," but claims he was working to address those critiques.
According to the lawsuit, the dispute resolution process is as follows:
The parties recognize that conflicts or disputes may occasionally arise. In recognition of the biblical calling to make every effort to live at peace with one another and to resolve disputes with each other in private or within the Christian church, this Agreement commits the parties to attempt to resolve any dispute in a biblical manner, according to the principles stated in 1 Corinthians 6: 1-8, Matthew 5:23-24; and Matthew 18:15-20. If any dispute cannot be resolved in private meetings between the parties, the parties agree to enter non-binding Christian mediation before pursing litigation.
For more background, read CT's coverage of how the CCCU fired Blews.