A recent lawsuit filed by Dr. Stanley Nel, former Vice President of International Relations for the University of San Francisco, claims he warned top administrators in 2012 that a $200,000 full scholarship offered to an Ethiopian politician’s daughter was a potential violation of federal corruption laws and would have “damaging repercussions” for the University.
The student ended up attending USF with the full scholarship, according to the suit.
Nel’s suit was filed against the University on March 18 and included multiple complaints: wrongful termination, disability discrimination, age discrimination and whistleblower retaliation, among others.
A request for comment by administrators on the 2012 incident was directed to USF’s Office of the General Counsel.
“The University fully denies the Africa allegations that Dr. Nel includes in his lawsuit,” General Counsel Donna Davis said in an email statement to the Foghorn on April 3. “Dr. Nel informed the University on at least two occasions about concerns he had regarding an admission decision by the University. As is university practice, the University evaluated the concerns and responded accordingly. The University found no evidence of wrong doing and Dr. Nel did not provide any.”
Until his termination, Nel worked in various roles at USF for the last 34 years, first as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and, until most recently, spearheaded the University’s recruitment in Asia.
According to an interview with Nel’s attorney, Andrew Pierce, Nel’s warnings about the scholarship in 2012 is what ultimately led the University to terminate him in March 2018.
The University claims the 2012 incident is unrelated to Nel’s dismissal. “Dr. Nel filed this lawsuit after he was dismissed for his own acts of misconduct regarding matters not in Africa, but largely having to do with his responsibilities in Asia,” Davis said.
The 2012 Incident
According to Nel’s suit, a former USF Board of Trustees member urged Charles Cross, current head of USF’s finances, to facilitate the admission and the granting of a full scholarship to the daughter of a minister in the Ethiopian government.
The lawsuit claims that the student was “academically ineligible for admission,” and that Nel was concerned with the Board of Trustees member’s alleged connections to the Ethiopian government.
Before the student was admitted, Nel claims that he reported the matter to then-USF President Stephen Privett. Privett, who served as USF’s president until 2014, then as Chancellor until 2017, decided to admit the student but wanted to lower the scholarship to $10,000, according to the suit.
“In spite of this directive, the student was admitted with a full ride scholarship” worth approximately $200,000, Nel’s suit alleges. Shortly after speaking with Privett, Nel claims Cross presented a “retaliatory audit” containing “false allegations” against him to the Board of Trustees’ Audit Committee. This prompted the Committee’s chair to unsuccessfully request Nel’s termination.
After the audit by Cross, the suit claims that Nel and then-Provost Jennifer Turpin, who is currently a professor at the University, met with Privett to voice their concerns about Cross. Nel said during the meeting that the admission of the Ethiopian student was possibly a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act if the board member had business ties to the Ethiopian government, and also said that the matter could “result in other damaging repercussions to USF.”
The FCPA, a federal law passed in 1977, makes it illegal to bribe foreign officials with promises of money or things of value in exchange for business opportunities. While FCPA cases are usually brought against corporations, non-profit universities like USF are still subject to this law, according to attorney Erika A. Kelton, who has worked on prominent whistleblower cases.
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“All [USF] employees are advised of our policies and procedures, as well as their requirements to abide by the law,” Davis said. “We have Ethics Policies and Certifications for all officers to abide by, the letter and spirit of all federal and state laws and regulations, including but not limited federal criminal and civil laws. These are not specific to any one law like FCPA but extend to all laws. We welcome any and all information with concerns that there have been violations of policy, procedure or the law.”
Neither the Board of Trustees member nor the Ethiopian student was named in Nel’s suit. Nel declined an interview request through his attorney.
Nel speaks with President Fitzgerald
Nel’s suit claims that four years later, in 2016, he had a conversation with current President Paul J. Fitzgerald, where he again brought up Cross’ participation in the admission of the Ethiopian student. Nel claims that President Fitzgerald listened to his concerns during this meeting.
Two weeks later, Nel claims President Fitzgerald “suddenly and inexplicably” became suspicious about his remarks regarding the Ethiopian student’s admission, and asked for specifically what criminal conduct had taken place, according to the suit. Nel denied he had accused anyone of crimes but reiterated the incident again to President Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, President Fitzgerald described Nel’s actions as “very serious professional misconduct” and later said he would speak with current Provost Donald Heller in order to determine any consequences, according to the suit.
“[The administration] seemed to be angry at him out of proportion to what he did,” Nel’s attorney, Andrew Pierce, said in an interview with the Foghorn. “Which was just to raise questions about something that certainly was worth questioning; why the university was putting these kinds of resources into somebody who probably shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place.”
“Dr. Nel informed the University that he had no evidence of any violation of a law by anyone at USF having to do with the Africa matter and that he was not making any accusations against anyone, and he never again said otherwise,” Davis said.
Nel’s suit describes two more instances which he believes ultimately contributed to his termination.
In June 2017, Nel, who traveled frequently between the U.S. and Asia, says Heller demanded a $10,838 reimbursement for business and economy class travel of which Heller says he was not approved for. It is unclear from the suit whether Nel paid back the money.
In January 2018, some two months before Nel’s termination, the suit claims that Heller sent Nel an email requesting all electronic correspondence relating to Service Explorer’s, a non-profit based in San Rafael that Nel was associated with. Nel claims he was under no obligation to provide anything to the University since the non-profit was entirely separate from his duties at USF. Heller said Nel’s refusal to give over this information was “insubordination,” and that Nel was concealing documents from the University, according to the suit.
USF, represented by Vartain Law Group, responded on April 3 to Nel’s suit by filing a petition to compel arbitration. This is where a judge decides whether a neutral, third-party attorney should resolve the case out of court.
The University stated in their filing that Nel’s employment agreement required any dispute to be arbitrated.
“We respect Dr. Nel’s right to bring concerns forward,” Davis said. “The University does not plan to engage in a back-and-forth response with Dr. Nel in the press. Instead, we will reserve University proof for the proper legal forum that he and the University have agreed — that is, California Arbitration.”
Nel’s attorney plans to oppose the University’s petition for arbitration.
Whether Nel is required to arbitrate with the University will be decided in May.
To read the University’s statement in its entirety, click here.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Stephen Privett was currently Chancellor of USF. This is incorrect. He was Chancellor until September 2017. The article has been updated with this corrected information.