Higher education

University of Iowa faces federal civil rights investigation in coach's firing

Former players claim university handles complaints by men, women differently

University of Iowa field hockey players, Dani Hemeon, Natalie Cafone, Chandler Ackers and Jessy Silfer, filed a federal civil rights complaint against the UI last month based on concerns about the firing of their coach, Tracey Griesbaum, in August. Submitted photo
University of Iowa field hockey players, Dani Hemeon, Natalie Cafone, Chandler Ackers and Jessy Silfer, filed a federal civil rights complaint against the UI last month based on concerns about the firing of their coach, Tracey Griesbaum, in August. Submitted photo
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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa announced Wednesday it had received notice from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of an investigation related to the firing of former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum.

Four of her former players filed a complaint in January with the OCR after they said the university refused to look into whether gender played a role in Griesbaum’s firing.

She was fired August 4, 2014 by Athletic Director Gary Barta after several players said they were verbally abused by the coach and pressured to play while injured. The University of Iowa Department of Human Resources and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity found no violations, though investigators described a “team environment of fear, intimidation, and/or mistreatment by Coach Griesbaum,” according to the university.

The complaint filed by the former players claims their Title IX rights were violated because the university investigates complaints of male and female student-athletes differently and holds female coaches to a higher standard. Six female head coaches were fired from 2008 to August 2014. In that time, 11 head coach positions held by men turned over, though some were fired and instead left for other jobs.

In its letter addressed to University of Iowa President Sally Mason, the Office for Civil Rights wrote, “We have determined that we have authority to investigate this complaint” due to the office’s responsibility for enforcing Title IX, which prohibits discrimination or retaliation on the basis of sex in any education program or activity operated by an organization receiving federal funding from the Department of Education.

“The UI respects the Office for Civil Rights jurisdiction and will cooperate fully with the investigation,” university spokeswoman Jeneane Beck wrote in an email announcing the university’s receipt of the letter from the OCR. “The UI’s decision to change leadership in the field hockey program was not related to gender.”

“[Investigating] the allegations ... in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to their merit,” the letter said. It also asked university officials for a list of information, including copies of the complaint filed by the students in October 2014, the school’s policies prohibiting sex discrimination and all sex discrimination complaints filed going back to the 2012-2013 school year.

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Griesbaum’s firing brought to light her relationship with senior associate athletics director Jane Meyer after claims it created the appearance that complaints about Griesbaum’s coaching would be ignored. The pair didn’t disclose their relationship to university officials because Mayer wasn’t Griesbaum’s direct supervisor.

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