Fired last fall as CEO of Manchester Community College, Nicole Esposito subsequently sued the Connecticut State College and University System, alleging gender discrimination and a host of other issues, including violations of her First Amendment and equal protection rights.
Today he returns to his role, with a payment and other concessions from the CSCU system.
“I look forward to returning and continuing to provide the best possible experience for Manchester Community College students, as well as everyone else who is part of the MCC community,” Esposito said in a statement through his legal counsel.
Esposito filed a lawsuit in August 2021 after facing alleged gender discrimination. The lawsuit alleges that her supervisor, Rob Steinmetz, threatened her job when she complained about her behavior and that officials pressured her to resign when she asked them to intervene in the matter. The suit charges that Esposito was fired without cause.
CSCU must now pay Esposito $775,000 (a combination of back pay, compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees) and provide training to executives and managers on discrimination and retaliation, whistleblower protections and employee free speech rights. The settlement also prohibits Esposito’s former supervisor, the man accused of sexist behavior toward her and other women, from having any managerial power over her.
The defendants in the case pleaded not guilty.
Esposito was hired as CEO (a role similar to a president) of Manchester Community College in July 2020. Although she had held several positions in higher education, it was her first executive job. His career was cut short after he clashed with Steinmetz, who was the president of the Capital East Region, a now-defunct role in the community college system.
Esposito claimed in her lawsuit that Steinmetz began making sexist remarks early on, criticizing her tone of voice and describing it as “nasty.” Esposito said Steinmetz also made sexist comments about a highly qualified job candidate, criticizing her for talking too much during an interview. When Esposito confronted him with allegations of sexism, Steinmetz allegedly threatened her job security, the lawsuit details.
Reached by email, Steinmetz did not provide Inside Higher Ed with a comment.
Esposito’s lawsuit also stated that system officials took no action when informed of her supervisor’s behavior, allegedly telling her “to go back and work things out with Steinmetz.” According to the lawsuit, system officials not only failed to intervene, but also pressured Esposito to resign.
With tensions still simmering, Esposito was told in June 2021, less than a year after taking the job, that his appointment as CEO of Manchester Community College would be terminated. The suit claims Esposito was given no “justification or reason” for the proposed termination.
Esposito also alleges that an outside law firm hired to conduct an independent investigation into Steinmetz’s alleged behavior was the same firm that represented the system in labor and employment matters, and that it excluded relevant information it provided his lawyer
Esposito was suspended and removed from her position in August 2021. Her lawsuit claims she was not afforded due process, citing a delayed hearing related to her suspension. Ultimately, a hearing was held in January and his dismissal was upheld, which Esposito argues was in part because he had “expressed concerns to the [U.S.] Education Department”.
Shortly after being removed from her position, Esposito hired a legal team that filed a lawsuit against CSCU. After about a year in limbo, the case was settled earlier this month, resulting in Esposito’s return.
The big picture
As Esposito fought in court to keep his job, campus allies rallied around him.
Angelo Messore, who teaches political science and economics at Manchester, said Esposito’s termination came as a surprise at the start of the new school year.
“They took her out abruptly. We were preparing for the start of a new fall  semester and suddenly he was informed that he had been withdrawn,” Messore said.
Messore quickly organized and sent a petition to the Board of Regents opposing the termination of Esposito.
Patrick Sullivan, professor of English at Manchester Community College who wrote op-eds defending Esposito, said via email that her termination was “sudden, confusing and shocking.” He added that Esposito had ably led the university during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. The campus reaction to his termination consisted of “confusion, bewilderment and fear,” he said. (Sullivan also noted that Esposito she won the woman of the year award from the American Association of Women in Community Colleges in April while still fighting for her job.)
Both faculty members suggested that Esposito had been asking tough questions about the consolidation of Connecticut’s community colleges, which also factored into his termination.
“Many read this impeachment as a chilling message: We are in charge. Get in line or bad things will happen,” Sullivan wrote. “We will not tolerate ‘insubordination’ (a word they were very fond of using at the time for anyone with a difference of opinion or speaking their mind).”
Now, with Esposito back, professors said they’re glad to have an advocate for Manchester Community College as consolidation approaches for the fall of 2023.
“We feel that we finally have our president back, that we have someone who will represent us and fight for us, someone who will help us maintain our position. Without a CEO, we had no one to represent us in the system office and express our needs,” Messore said.
Both Messore and Sullivan were highly critical of the consolidation process, which they see as forced and clumsy. They alleged that system administrators were being bullied and expressed the need for greater accountability for system leadership that extended all the way to the top.
“The way the system is set up now, more of these types of problems are inevitable,” Sullivan said. “Right now, there are no checks and balances or legislative oversight. The governor appoints people to the Board of Regents, who have simply ticked off everything the system office has wanted to do. The appointees know that the governor supports this fusion and the people who run it. It’s a system designed to produce these kinds of unfortunate accounts.”
The CSCU system did not make a statement or make officials available to discuss Esposito’s lawsuit, but instead directed Inside Higher Ed to an Aug. 12 announcement of personnel changes, which included a brief mention of the return of Esposito and noted that Steinmetz had been transferred from the region. position of president to be, instead, executive vice president of university services and student affairs.
The CSCU system and Steinmetz have been named since then another lawsuitfiled in July, by a plaintiff who alleged discrimination due to her age and physical limitations.
A CSCU official said the lawsuit is “a personnel matter that is currently under review.”
To outside legal observers, Esposito’s victory is somewhat unusual.
Stephanie Hamm, who works in employment law as a partner at the law firm Thompson & Horton LLP, said by email that employment cases “tend to be an uphill battle for the plaintiff because most employment laws are designed to make it difficult for claimants to prevail.”
Hamm, who has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in employment cases, said it is rare to see a lawsuit in which an employee succeeds in keeping his job and receives both back pay and compensatory damages, describing the legal outcome as “a big win for plaintiff.” “