An Employee’s Revenge?

12 01 2010

Truth or fiction?

A former Cornell University employee threatened to reveal unfair admissions practices in an attempt to settle a personal lawsuit regarding overtime, Cornell officials allege.

Eldred Harris, a former reunion campaign officer in the Alumni Affairs and Development Office, is suing the university for $30,000 in overtime fees. Cornell officials allege in court documents that Harris said he had information about a supposed university admissions practice in which mediocre students were offered placement in return for large donations, and threatened in March 2008 to reveal it if a settlement was not reached.

Harris’ lawyer, Edward Kopko, said the matter of Cornell’s admissions practices is not related to the overtime issue and the university is using it to obfuscate the matter.

“We are only concerned with (the Fair Labor Standards Law) and labor law,” Kopko said. “The case has nothing to do with the distractions that were raised by Cornell pertaining to admissions. I assume Cornell is doing it to undermine Mr. Harris, but it actually has nothing to do with this case.”

Associate Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Richard Banks said in an affidavit in the case that Harris’ then-lawyer, Seth Peacock, wrote to Cornell Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman on March 12, 2008, outlining Harris’ grievances, which included being terminated for persistently pushing the AA&D office to address what he termed “neglect and under-investment (of) Cornell’s diverse constituents,” and giving a deadline for reaching a settlement regarding the overtime fees.

“To highlight one of many of Mr. Harris’s significant concerns, I have included three disturbing e-mails with this letter,” Banks quoted Peacock’s letter as saying. “They illustrate quite clearly that for majority donors, there is a threshold gift level that impacts admission decisions despite all of the lofty protestations to the contrary. The first sets forth the price of admission to Cornell; the second, if the price is paid even a mediocre student will be admitted. Both students were admitted to Cornell.

A third e-mail is from an African-American alumnus who was complaining of his daughter’s rejection from Cornell despite what he regarded as her “clear qualifications and his giving potential.” According to Banks’ affidavit, Harris asserted in Peacock’s letter to Opperman that this alumnus is still not tracked by the AA&D office. Harris’ complaint in Tompkins County Supreme Court includes several e-mails between him and his supervisors at Cornell, but does not include the e-mails mentioned in the quoted letter to Opperman.


Peacock’s letter, as quoted by Banks, goes on to say that the issue of equitable access to higher education is one to which Harris is “highly sensitive” as an African-American Cornell alumnus, and that Harris is “prepared to forward all one hundred plus messages to … the New York Attorney General’s Office, numerous media outlets and most importantly he is ready to share these messages with Cornell’s twenty-five thousand or so Asian, African-American, and Latino alumni of which I (Peacock) am one.”

University Counsel Wendy Tarlow responded to Peacock March 13, 2008: “Please be advised that the use of confidential University documents by your client violates the confidentiality agreement that he signed while employed at Cornell. Your threat to use these documents also appears to constitute extortion under New York law. Moreover, your own actions in writing the letter dated March 12, 2008 (to Mary Opperman) appear to violate the New York Code of Professional Responsibility.”

Tarlow gave a deadline for the documents to be returned to Cornell by the next day.

Banks and Harris did not return calls regarding the case. A spokesman for Cornell’s press relations office said she could not comment on the case since it is still in litigation, and that she was not aware of practices within Alumni Affairs and Development. Harris is a member of the Ithaca City School District Board of Education.

Kopko said the matter of Cornell’s admissions process and Harris’ exchange with the university regarding the e-mails have nothing to do with the case Harris has brought against Cornell and are an intentional distraction Cornell has “injected into the case.”

“The issue in the case is simply overtime,” Kopko said. “It is a (Fair Labor Standards Act) overtime and labor claim. … When you read the documentary evidence, they are trying to distract the court from the fact that this is a labor law issue by referring to the circumstances surrounding (Harris’) separation from Cornell.”

Cornell filed a motion to dismiss the case Dec. 18.


Well, if there’s any truth to the allegations, then I guess Sandy Weill’s grandkids will have no problem getting into Cornell.



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