Former Iowa State employee suing university officials on basis of sex discrimination

Alex Connor

A former Iowa State employee is filing a civil suit against the university for what she says were discriminatory actions made against her on the basis of her sex.

Laura Smarandescu, who formerly served as an assistant professor in marketing, said that she was forced to leave Iowa State after her application for promotion to tenure was denied – a process in which she felt she faced wrongful and unlawful discriminatory conduct. 

Smarandescu, according to court documents, applied for an associate professor position with tenure in August 2014 after meeting “expectations every year for research, teaching and service.”

Smarandescu was hired in 2007 and said in 2010 her probationary period was extended by three years – at the time, court documents state, the College of Business committee and dean “concluded that she was making good progress toward tenure in terms of research and teaching.”

Court documents state that Smarandescu’s application for promotion was initially considered and reviewed by the promotion and tenure committee of the marketing department in 2014 but later denied.

Those on the committee, who are also named as defendants in the suit, include Sridhar Ramaswami, Stephen Kim, John Wong, Sekar Raju and Sanjeev Agarwal.

The application was then moved to review by Chair of the Marketing Department Russ Laczniak. Both the committee and David Spalding, dean of the College of Business, recommended the application be denied. Both are named as defendants in the suit.

After being denied by both the chair and marketing committee, Smarandescu’s application was then reviewed by the College of Business promotion and tenure committee and was denied again. 

Moving onto Provost Jonathan Wickert’s office and Iowa State President Steven Leath’s office, the application for promotion was denied March 27, 2015. 

Court documents allege that Smarandescu’s application was denied “even though her qualifications, research and teaching record were as good or better than male assistant professors previously awarded promotion to associate professor in the College of Business.”

Smarandescu then appealed the tenure decision through Iowa State’s grievance mechanisms, and the Faculty Senate Appeals Committee then appointed an investigative committee to examine the case, according to court documents. 

The suit claims that Leath and Wickert then “improperly interfered with the appeal process” and directed the investigative committee to limit its review away from Smarandescu’s merits and rather to focus on procedural issues.

In fall 2015, the appeals committee “agreed with [Smarandescu] and voted 22-2 that the tenure process was flawed and in violation of the Faculty Handbook.

The committee recommended that Smarandescu’s tenure process be redone, according to court documents, and that she be offered an extension of her employment contract. 

On Nov. 3, 2015, however, Leath denied the recommendation of the appeals committee to redo the tenure process and extend her contract. 

Because of the denial of her tenure application and Iowa State’s policy, Smarandescu was then forced to leave her employment at Iowa State within six months, according to court documents.

Smarandescu, 48, is being represented by Des Moines lawyer William Graham. The suit was filed March 24 and is demanding a trial by jury on several counts. 

According to court documents, Smarandescu is alleging that actions by the defendants violate the provisions by the Iowa Civil Rights Act prohibiting sex discrimination in the workplace. 

She is also alleging that the defendants conduct “violates the provisions of Title VII of the United States Code,” which prohibits sex discrimination in employment.

The suit is also claiming that the terms and conditions of Smarandescu’s contract with Iowa State have been violated through “the defendants’ failure to act in accordance with the applicable ISU governance documents, policies and provisions of the faculty handbook.”

She is also alleging violations of the equal protection and due process clause of the 14th and Fifth Amendment. 

Smarandescu filed a complaint of discrimination with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission on August 26, 2016, which was then cross-filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commision.

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission, according to court documents, confirmed her right to institute civil actions. 

An Iowa State spokesperson said the university is aware of the lawsuit, but denied comment at this time.
“We will be represented by the Iowa Attorney General’s office and our response to the lawsuit will be filed in Story County District Court,” the university spokesperson said.