A white former employee of Winston-Salem State University, a historically black university, was a victim of racial discrimination when she was terminated, according to a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The employee, Shira Hedgepeth of Winston-Salem, was the school's director of academic technology. She said she filed a complaint with the EEOC on July 10, 2011, alleging that WSSU had discriminated against her because she is white. She filed the complaint two days after she was terminated, she said.
Nancy Young, a spokeswoman for WSSU, said she could not comment on a pending legal matter.
WSSU denied Hedgepeth's allegations, saying the reasons for her termination were nondiscriminatory, according to a letter to the university from the EEOC dated Sept. 20.
The letter said the matter will go to mediation. If no settlement is reached between Hedgepeth and WSSU, the case could go to federal court, according to the EEOC letter.
A call to the EEOC was not returned Tuesday.
Hedgepeth, who worked in the school's Department of Information Technology, said she had worked at WSSU since August 2008 and was promoted to director of academic technology in September 2010.
According to the EEOC letter, WSSU hired a new associate provost and chief information officer and, soon after, the two terminated Hedgepeth. The associate provost and the chief information officer, who are not named in the letter, told Hedgepeth that she was losing her position because the university was going in a different direction, the EEOC letter said.
Hedgepeth had performed well and had no complaints, the EEOC said. She was replaced by someone who was not white and WSSU has not sought a permanent replacement for the specific position of director of academic technology despite WSSU "continuing to seek out and hire new employees not of the charging party's protected class (meaning white in this context) into its Department of Information Technology."
Hedgepeth said that she saw a pattern of white employees being terminated for no reason and of white candidates not being hired.
The EEOC concluded that Hedgepeth's "race, white, was a factor in the terms and conditions of employment and respondent's (WSSU's) decision to terminate her employment."
WSSU said it terminated Hedgepeth because the department was changing and the position had new responsibilities that required "advanced skills in systems and applications programming."
According to statistics for fiscal year 2010-11, 67.3 percent of WSSU's employees are black and 23.9 percent are white, Young said. She said 1.6 percent of the employees are Asian, 0.2 percent are Native American, 2.4 percent are noncitizens who are here legally, and 1.1 percent are Hispanic. The race/ethnicity of 3.5 percent is unclear.
Robert Joyce, a professor at the UNC School of Government, said this isn't a case of reverse discrimination, which often involves white people who believe they are being discriminated against because of affirmative action policies.
"If you are treated differently and adversely because you are black or white, you are being discriminated on the basis of your race and that is unlawful," he said.
Typically, a person alleging racial discrimination has to prove intent, and that is often difficult, Joyce said.
Hedgepeth said she is still unemployed and that she and her family have been hurt by WSSU's actions.
"People need to be aware that the law works both ways and when race comes into play, it doesn't benefit anyone," she said. "Our tax dollars are supporting that. My tax money is going to an institution that teaches racism."