WASHINGTON—Former Council for Christian Colleges and Universities president Edward O. Blews Jr. is suing the council for $2.2 million, saying he was fired without cause, tarnishing his reputation, as he tried to address systemic problems at the organization.
The CCCU, a coalition of 174 Christian colleges and universities, announced it was dismissing Blews last October, less than 10 months after he assumed the presidency. The CCCU gave no public reasons for replacing Blews—saying only that it came after “careful investigation and prayerful consideration”—but a subsequent investigation by WORLD revealed some of the reasons in an article published last month.
The lawsuit alleges that after the council’s October press release hurt Blews’ reputation, WORLD’s coverage “further damaged” his name with “outrageous allegations.” I asked Blews’ attorney, Joyce Smithey, what specific allegations her client disputes and she declined to cite any. She said Blews will not give any interviews, but he is “profoundly disappointed” in the council’s refusal to honor its contractual obligations.
In a statement released Thursday, the CCCU said it “stands ready to defend its decision to make a presidential transition.”
Blews filed the lawsuit as the council opened a major conference Wednesday in Los Angeles—a scaled-down version of the CCCU’s quadrennial International Forum on Christian Higher Education. According to the CCCU Board of Directors and former employees, Blews’ lack of preparation for the forum was a major factor in the decision to fire him. But Blews claimed he was “attentive” to forum planning as soon as he took office in January 2013.
Blews said he was working “extraordinarily hard,” and while he had received some “advice,” he had overall positive feedback from the board as recent as two months before being fired. According to the complaint, Blews was shocked to learn of the board’s many problems with his presidency.
Attached to the suit is a 23-page letter Blews submitted to the board in early October regarding his performance. The letter included detailed responses to specific charges: intentionally failing to represent the CCCU to vital external audiences; intentionally failing to plan the International Forum; misrepresenting facts to the board; misrepresenting the board to the staff; intentionally failing to schedule or attend meetings; and intentionally failing to execute decisions in a timely fashion.
The term “intentional failure” is key because, according to the complaint, Blews’ five-year contract only allows three causes for dismissal: grossly immoral or felonious behavior, an explicit denial of his Christian faith, or “intentional failure” to execute his duties as president and CEO. The first two causes would allow the council to relieve Blews without pay, but the third—the one the organization apparently used—requires it to pay no less than 24 months of his $303,850 annual salary and full benefits.
The suit claims Blews “has not engaged in any conduct or behavior that would trigger any of the provisions” outlined in the contract and was given “no reasonable opportunity to defend himself.” Blews wants the CCCU to pay him the full $2,204,894.72 owed over the life of the contract. The complaint accuses the organization of only offering him $200,000 and no benefits.
Blews said he was reluctant to take the position and turned it down initially, citing “concerns about the dysfunction and serious problems within the organization and unhappiness among employees with the Board after his acceptance.” The suit says the board fired Blews in part based on information from “disgruntled prior employees,” although former employees told me the board did not consult them before firing Blews. They said the unanimous decision was based solely on interviews with employees still working for the council.
According to Blews, he was working to address a variety of organizational problems, including a “substantial” 2012-13 budget deficit, one employee’s conflict of interest, nepotism in hiring practices, a violation of board policies, gender discrimination, and a disclosure of private employee information on the organization’s computer system. All former employees left of their own volition, but Blews, in his suit—while going after the reputation of several former employees—does not say why he never fired anyone over the alleged serious problems.
The suit also recounts a conversation in which the board’s vice chair, Barry Corey, president of Biola University, said he didn’t think Blews would be able to correct the office problems because “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” A footnote of the suit said Blews, 58, is filing an age discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and plans to add that charge to the complaint once he’s granted a right to sue.
Blews filed the complaint in Superior Court in Washington, D.C. He said he tried to resolve the disagreement through biblical methods of mediation and dispute resolution, but the council refused to cooperate after an initial meeting in November. The CCCU on Thursday said it was “surprised and disappointed” to learn Blews filed a lawsuit, since it agreed to his proposed mediation date 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 council’s statement said.
Listen to J.C. Derrick discuss the CCCU situation with Joseph Slife on The World and Everything in It: