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Published: Wednesday, 7/11/2007

University of Toledo to rehire ousted aide to athletics

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Days before she was to sue the University of Toledo for firing her, a former high-ranking member of UT s athletic department learned she was going to get her job back.

Suzette Fronk, UT s former assistant athletic director for business affairs, was told yesterday by her lawyer, Kevin Greenfield, that university President Lloyd Jacobs intends to reinstate her.

Mr. Greenfield said he was informed of Dr. Jacobs decision yesterday by a member of UT s legal team. The news came while Mr. Greenfield was preparing a lawsuit to be filed against UT officials.

Legally we have a strong case, and I think they recognized that, Mr. Greenfield said.

UT spokesman Tobin Klinger said it would be improper for the university to comment until UT officials had spoken with the employee involved.

Rick Stansley, chairman of the university s board of trustees, told The Blade that he was made aware of Dr. Jacobs initiative yesterday.

I m happy about the fact that we have an administration that can look at what s happening, determine if it s right or wrong, and make an adjustment, Mr. Stansley said.

Ms. Fronk was notified in a letter from the university s human resources department May 15 that her job was being eliminated as a result of the reorganization related to the merger of the University of Toledo and Medical University of Ohio.

But last week, The Blade obtained an e-mail written by UT Athletic Director Mike O Brien that stated he eliminated Ms. Fronk s position and that she was the ultimate disgruntled employee.

I had to eliminate her role as she was a tremendous blow to our morale; among other things, Mr. O Brien wrote to Blade Vice President and General Manager Joseph H. Zerbey IV. Reporters obtained the e-mail through a public records request and not from Mr. Zerbey.

Mr. Greenfield said the UT lawyer told him Dr. Jacobs plans to rescind the termination letter given to Ms. Fronk on May 15.

Her accusations of improper spending and other financial practices within the athletic department led to investigations by the university and The Blade into UT athletics.

Dr. Jacobs and other university officials originally told The Blade Ms. Fronk s job was eliminated and her duties would be moved to UT s finance department.

I was fine with that explanation, Mr. Stansley said. But since then, other factors have come to light, and I believe Dr. Jacobs was not comfortable with the administrative decision that was made, and I support that.

Now it appears Dr. Jacobs wants those functions back in Ms. Fronk s hands, and she s happy about it.

Reached by phone yesterday while traveling out of town, Ms. Fronk said she s looking forward to discussing her return to UT with Dr. Jacobs.

Absolutely, Ms. Fronk said when asked if she d consider accepting Dr. Jacobs offer. I ve always enjoyed working for the university. In light of some poor decisions made in the past, they decided to rectify them in a positive way.

Ms. Fronk was going to sue UT because she believed she was fired for doing her job. According to Ms. Fronk s hiring notice from 2001, she was charged with assisting the athletic director with financial planning [including revenue and cost projections]; providing budget control, and managing transaction-processing functions.

University records obtained by The Blade show that Ms. Fronk faced resistance from Mr. O Brien and other UT athletics staff members over the last two years when she raised questions about spending, travel, and other financial practices within the department as its projected budget deficit grew to as much as $2 million. Last week, UT officials said the athletics deficit would top out at around $1 million this year.

Ms. Fronk s battle with UT athletics officials spilled into the public in the last month in a series of stories in The Blade.

She said yesterday she recognizes that some of her co-workers may have hard feelings toward her when she returns but said that won t affect her ability to do her job.

Anyone who s in a position that carries fiduciary responsibilities has to make tough decisions and say yes or no to people, Ms. Fronk said. You get used to people not liking you. As long as everyone respects the job you re doing, personal feelings are not a problem.

Mr. Greenfield said he was told if his client returns to UT and finds she isn t comfortable working in athletics, the university would explore transferring her to a different department.

He also said the university will determine if Ms. Fronk s base salary of $65,000 is too low, based on concerns that her pay was less than what other athletics administrators were making with similar levels of experience and responsibility.

Ms. Fronk s lawyer said Dr. Jacobs initiative does not constitute a settlement with his client.

We can certainly explore legal options and we hope to discuss a financial resolution to this problem, Mr. Greenfield said.

Perhaps the most stunning component of Dr. Jacobs intent to reinstate Ms. Fronk is that the move will again place her in the same work environment with Mr. O Brien.

UT s athletic director was not available for comment yesterday and declined to be interviewed last week about the e-mail he sent to Mr. Zerbey. But in a written statement released on July 2 discussing the e-mail, Mr. O Brien said he mischaracterized Ms. Fronk s dismissal.

While Mr. O Brien retracted the reasons he gave to Mr. Zerbey as to why Ms. Fronk was terminated, that e-mail and other university documents show that Mr. O Brien had grown frustrated with Ms. Fronk.

Unless something changes, Mr. O Brien will be working with and supervising Ms. Fronk, who appears to have the UT president s direct support.

When asked if Dr. Jacobs is planning to fire Mr. O Brien, or if Mr. O Brien is expected to resign, Mr. Klinger said, It s my understanding that Mr. O Brien s status is not expected to change.

According to university documents, Mr. O Brien s contract expires June 30, 2008.

His base salary this year is $160,199.

Last month Dr. Jacobs ordered structural changes within the athletic department, some of which were because of questions Ms. Fronk raised and the ongoing federal probe into a point-shaving scheme involving UT football and basketball players.

Dr. Jacobs expressed his support for Mr. O Brien at the time, saying he desired to recommend Mr. O Brien s contract be extended or renewed by the board of trustees.

But Dr. Jacobs said he was appointing a committee to advise him on the matter, and that committee s report was due on his desk by Aug. 1.

He s done a great job of organizing, he s a good leader, and furthermore, he s a friend and good person, Dr. Jacobs said last month. I would like very much to extend his contract, but I d like to create an objective process to advise me.



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