Tennessee Athletic Department Restructuring Not Without Controversy

It's not every day that college media relations folks make the news, particularly not when they are departing from their post. But when that media relations person was the associate athletics director and a main mouthpiece for the Tennessee Lady Vols athletics department, you've got news.

Debby Jennings, who worked at Tennessee for the last 35 years, was forced out of her position last week and is now considering legal action. In recently released statements and interdepartmental communications, it was revealed that she was asked to resign near the end of 2011 and later was unceremoniously relieved of her duties due to "insubordination" last week. The claim put forth is that this personnel change could be in part due to Jennings' stance that UT was practicing gender and age discrimination of late.

The Vice Chancellor of the university, Dave Hart, issued a ... strongly worded ... statement in response to the recent news stories, along with other excerpts from Jennings' personnel files to support his claims:

"Although I do not normally comment on personnel decisions, 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. 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.

"Based on her years of service, she was eligible for full retirement from the University, including medical benefits. I gave her the opportunity to retire instead of being terminated, and she chose that option. I will have no additional comment at this time, and I wish Debby well in her future endeavors."

It appears that at least a segment of the public sides with Jennings, as a petition has begun circulation on change.org in response not only to her firing, but also the restructuring of the Tennessee athletic department on the whole. UT's previously separate men's and women's athletic departments are in the midst of being combined, primarily for budgetary and unification reasons. However, the petition suggests that Jennings' claims of gender discrimination might have some backbone:

A review of the Executive Staff shows that 3 out of 8 personnel choices were people who had previously worked in the Women’s Athletic Department. However, a review of the Senior Administrative Staff shows that only 3 out of 15 personnel choices were from people who had previously worked in the Women’s Athletic Department.

Considering the depth and breadth of success that the Lady Vols have enjoyed, coupled with the tarnish that the men's programs have cast on the university in the recent past, one might imagine that the women's higher ups might be retained at a higher rate. Time will tell if Jennings' claim is viable or if the department does indeed harbor biases, but in the meantime this story is vastly different than the press conference and send off that Pat Summitt received not so long ago.

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