Former Ohio State professor, Deborah Mitchell, is suing Ohio State claiming gender-based discrimination in the Fisher College of Business. Credit: Courtesy of Deborah Mitchell

A fired Ohio State professor has filed a lawsuit against the school and some of its employees, claiming gender-based discrimination and painting a picture of a “toxic” and discriminatory environment in the Fisher College of Business. 

The suit was filed Sept. 19 by Deborah Mitchell in the Southern District Court of Ohio after her termination was approved by the Board of Trustees Aug. 30 for conflict of interest. According to Mitchell’s complaint, the university has allowed male employees to engage in similar activities without investigation or termination.

Mitchell, who worked at the university for seven years, is president and founder of a consulting business called CypressTree Corp. She was found to have committed “grave misconduct” and fired for improperly steering a $1.6 million project with the Ohio Department of Medicaid to her company, University President Michael V. Drake said at the full Board meeting

“By deciding to continue a relationship and enter into a contract with ODM without reporting it to the chair, dean, or others in authority within Fisher Executive Education, Professor Mitchell elected to pursue a matter in her role as President of CypressTree that competed directly with the interests of the Fisher College of Business,” Drake said in a letter to the Board recommending Mitchell’s termination.

Mitchell said she does not believe she was guilty of misconduct. 

“I have complete confidence in this litigation. And you know, I have zero doubt about the strength of my case. I do not wish that I had done anything differently,” she said in an interview with The Lantern.

Additionally, Drake; Executive Vice President and Provost Bruce McPheron; Paul C. Velasco, former executive director of Executive Education at Fisher; Anil Makhija, dean of Fisher; and Walter Zinn, faculty member and former associate dean of graduate students at Fisher, are also named as defendants in the suit as of an Oct. 23 amendment. 

The individuals held leadership positions during the time of Mitchell’s complaints and were involved in her termination and removal from teaching duties “with a motivating factor being her sex and in retaliation for making good faith complaints of discrimination.” 

Ben Johnson, university spokesperson, said the university is aware of the suit and reviewing it. Zinn said he could not comment on the suit. Makhija and Velasco did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication. 

Mitchell also wrote in her letter to the Board that the conclusion of the investigation and her pending termination would provide her a sense of relief. 

“I am almost free. I will no longer have to go to sleep at night with the weight of Ohio State holding me down, its bureaucratic hand over my mouth. This is almost over. Then it will be my turn to speak,” Mitchell said in the letter. 

The complaint cites discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII, Title IX and Ohio laws against discrimination. According to the suit, there was a culture of sexism in Fisher that Mitchell first experienced in her first few weeks at the university in 2012.

According to the suit, Mitchell faced “verbal abuse by male faculty members” from the start of her time at the university.

“But know that these are not isolated incidents, and they’re not just a small number of bad apples,” Mitchell said to The Lantern. 

However, Mitchell added that she is not “painting a broad brush” in terms of accusing all her male colleagues of misconduct.  

According to the suit, Mitchell reported that male professors discriminated against both female colleagues and students. The suit also claims Ohio State violated Mitchell’s right to due process by “failing to follow Ohio law and University policy” when conducting the investigation into Mitchell’s alleged conflict of interest.  

Mitchell is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees and costs, but she said she is aiming for broad change within the school.

“They’ve taken a lot from me. They’ve taken my job. They’ve ruined my reputation or tried to ruin my reputation,” she said. “So I’m definitely fighting back for myself, but I’m also fighting — my goals are to really expose and be part of a group of women who are going to be very committed to cleaning up Fisher.”