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Tennessee AD: Lost confidence in media director

Associated Press Modified: May 24, 2012 at 4:05 pm •  Published: May 24, 2012

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's athletic director Dave Hart is defending his move forcing Lady Vols media director Debby Jennings to retire, saying he wants to "set the record straight" in response to her retaining an attorney and threatening a lawsuit.

Hart issued a statement Thursday, a day after a letter from Jennings' attorney became public through a records' request noting Jennings was given a choice to be fired, resign or retire on May 15.

"Given the nature and volume of inaccurate information that has been disseminated from those around Debby Jennings, I believe it is necessary to set the record straight," Hart said. "I lost confidence that her employment was in the best interests of the Athletics Department. Specifically, I concluded that she was insubordinate, disrespectful and fostered an atmosphere of negativity and division."

The athletic director also noted that Jennings' 35 years at Tennessee made her eligible for full retirement, including medical benefits. Hart said Jennings chose that option. He also said he wishes her well in "future endeavors" but will not comment further on Jennings.

Tennessee also released a letter from the university's assistant general counsel to Burkhalter with Hart's statement that accused Jennings of pursuing her agenda through the media.

University officials later released approximately 250 pages of documents including a letter dated April 2012 with no specific day from Hart to Jennings firing her for "unsatisfactory work." Other documents included internal emails detailing meetings with Jennings, financial information and performance reviews.

Jennings' attorney, David Burkhalter, had written Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek saying she wanted to resolve the issue amicably. The attorney noted in that letter dated May 18 that he thought she had a case for a gender and/or age discrimination lawsuit.

"It's somewhat ironic to accuse Ms. Jennings of using the media when they release 250 pages of documents to the media," Burkhalter said Thursday. "We will limit our comments to the appropriate pleadings ... in the appropriate court."

Tennessee responded to Burkhalter in a letter dated Thursday, and assistant general counsel Michael D. Fitzgerald wrote that the university did not terminate Jennings because of her age, gender or as retaliation. The letter notes Hart's reasons and also that Jennings repeatedly resisted working cooperatively in Tennessee's new unified athletic department.

Fitzgerald writes that Hart gave Jennings the chance to retire rather than be "terminated" and that none of her emails have been deleted or destroyed. Tennessee's general counsel also notes that Burkhalter had asked for a response in 10 days in his letter dated May 18, yet Cheek was asked for comment about Jennings on Monday.