PALM HARBOR — An academic adviser with a strong following among USF athletes but a thick personnel file has charged the school with racial discrimination over her firing.
Myrtice Landers does not question that she committed the NCAA violation this spring that led to her dismissal two weeks ago, but she thinks there might be other reasons for her dismissal just 10 months short of full vesting in the pension program and 30-years service to the school.
"I couldn't help but think it's because of, maybe, I'm black," the 52-year-old said Thursday morning from the same law offices where football coach Jim Leavitt announced his wrongful termination suit against USF after his firing in January. "I would like to have my job back. ... I want my full retirement."
Landers filed a discrimination claim Thursday with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The academic adviser in USF's athletic department mistakenly provided $326 in textbooks to a basketball walk-on, thinking she was on scholarship. That violates NCAA rules, though it isn't a major penalty.
Her USF personnel file indicates previous problems, however, with two written reprimands in 2006, the second labeled a "final warning" from athletic director Doug Woolard, stating that "any future infractions will result in disciplinary actions, up to and including dismissal."
Landers says USF covering up other NCAA violations not caused by her. She alleges "numerous similarly situated white employees, including her superiors, committed both similar and more egregious NCAA rules violations but were not disciplined," according to a news release issued Thursday morning by attorney Wil Florin.
Landers and Florin declined to elaborate on the nature of those violations, but Florin said "USF knows obviously what a lot of them are. ... We'll talk to the NCAA about it. We'll talk to USF's counsel about it. We're not going to get into specifics, but rest assured, they will be discussed."
She worked for USF outside the athletic department from 1981 to 2004, but was not reappointed to her position in March 2004, a move that took effect six months later. Having lost a job that paid $56,375, she accepted her current position in athletics with a salary of $32,000, starting the day after her previous position ended.
Landers was the academic adviser for men's and women's basketball, and her firing was significant enough that two weeks ago, former USF basketball player Dominique Jones, a first-round NBA draft pick now with the Dallas Mavericks, called a St. Petersburg Times reporter to voice his displeasure with the decision.
"I think it's the worst mistake USF could have made," Jones said. "She helped so many people, and she was the reason I was eligible. I would have fallen off the team my freshman and sophomore year without her. She pushed you to do your work, even when you didn't want to."
Jones wasn't the only basketball player with an admiration for Landers, who presented an academic award at the men's basketball postseason banquet this spring. When the men's basketball team celebrated that all four of its seniors had graduated, Landers was praised. "We have one of the best academic advisers in America in Myrtice Landers," former guard Chris Howard said in the release in May.
The names of several USF athletes, including Jessica Dickson, the all-time leading scorer for the women's basketball team, are among signatures on an online petition asking for Landers' reinstatement.
Landers was issued two written reprimands in 2006, the second for an incident in which she "misrepresented facts" in asking for a student-athlete's reinstatement after the student had dropped classes, and signed documents in the student's name without indicating to others she was doing so, according to documents in her personnel file.
A September 2006 memo from athletic director Doug Woolard states that "these findings point to behaviors that can be characterized as negligence and violation of departmental policy, which have serious academic, professional and ethical implications. ... Your actions border on what the NCAA defines as unethical conduct."
Landers said her previous reprimands resulted from friction between herself and Jo-Ann Nestor, then USF's associate athletic director for academics. When Nestor left USF and Amy Perkins was hired into her current role, Landers said she was told by Woolard that "your slate has been wiped clean" and that she "definitely" interpreted that to rescind her "final warning" status.
Because of the firing,, Landers is eligible for only half of the pension she'd have if fully vested. Under her plan, USF employees with less than 30 years of service get the full pension minus 5 percent for each year they are younger than 62; since Landers is 52, she would have 50 percent of a full pension.
Landers' claim was also filed with USF's Diversity and Equal Opportunity Office. No athletic department officials will comment on the story. USF's sole response came through unisversity spokeswoman Lara Wade:
"The University of South Florida has received the employee's complaint, which is being addressed through the normal review process," Wade said in a statement. "The University takes seriously its responsibility for the academic progress of all student athletes and compliance with federal and state law, and NCAA rules. All athletic department employees are required to immediately report any violations. USF conducts timely and rigorous reviews of all alleged violations."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346.