UMKC whistleblower claims his firing was retaliation

Former UMKC business professor Richard Arend says he was fired for exposing wrongdoing.
Former UMKC business professor Richard Arend says he was fired for exposing wrongdoing.

The whistleblower who accused UMKC’s business school of falsifying data in pursuit of high rankings, prompting a 2014 Kansas City Star investigation that led to the loss of those accolades, says he was fired in retaliation for exposing the university’s dishonesty.

Richard Arend claims in a lawsuit that his five-year campaign to call out wrongdoing within the hierarchy of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch School of Management resulted in his dismissal in December 2016.

The suit, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, names as lead defendant the University of Missouri Board of Curators for affirming the decisions of UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton and then-interim UM System President Michael Middleton to fire Arend.

Also named as a defendant is Michael Song, the former UMKC professor who initiated and oversaw the effort to inflate the reputation of the Bloch School’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which he headed.

Song resigned in early 2015 after an outside auditor hired on the suggestion of then-Gov. Jay Nixon substantiated The Star’s findings: that Song and at least one other faculty member had boosted the Bloch Schools’ rankings with falsehoods and exaggerations.

The audit also backed up The Star’s findings that Song hid his involvement in the publication of a paper in a scholarly journal that purported to show that UMKC was ranked No. 1 in Song’s field of innovation management.

That 2011 ranking, which Arend had raised suspicions about from the day it was announced, was a key element in a UMKC marketing campaign to attract students and donations.

UMKC said Wednesday evening that it does not normally comment on pending litigation, but made an exception in Arend’s case.

The university said he was fired after a 10-member faculty committee heard evidence for six days and determined that he “demonstrated substantial lack of fitness in the professional capacity as a teacher and researcher at the University.”

UMKC said Arend’s contention that he was fired for being a whistleblower “is simply not true.”

In urging a judge to dismiss Arend’s lawsuit, attorneys for the curators relied on legal arguments — claims of sovereign immunity — rather than disputing the facts as outlined in Arend’s complaint.

Arend was dismissed from his $185,000-a-year job as a full professor despite having tenure, which guaranteed him a job for life as long as he adhered to university policies.

Under his contract, he could only be fired for “cause,” the suit contends.

According to the lawsuit, UMKC cited three causes for firing him: misconduct related to research; “intimidation, threats, coercion and/or harassment directed against students, faculty and or staff”; and “other misconduct.”

Arend denies that he was guilty of any of the charges, which the suit called a “pretext for retaliation in response to his reports of fraudulent acts.” His attorneys at the Popham Law Firm said he should not have been fired because of a Missouri whistleblower law that is meant to protect state employees who expose government wrongdoing.

Arend’s campaign against UMKC’s ill-gotten rankings and awards continued long after The Star’s investigation and a state audit led to the business school being stripped of several years of top rankings by the Princeton Review, two resignations and a rebuke of the No. 1 innovation management ranking by the journal that initially published it.

After the headlines began to fade, Arend continued to push for UMKC to return an award from the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. He said it also was based on false information.

UMKC issued him a warning on March 23, 2015, alleging that he was creating a hostile work environment. Seven days later, he filed grievances against two top administrators for allegedly misrepresenting data to achieve rankings in 2014.

At a faculty meeting in the summer of 2015, he further accused Morton and business school dean David Donnelly of being responsible for the misconduct of Song and others.

That following January, Morton initiated the dismissal process, according to the lawsuit.

Arend did not respond to a request for comment. Song could not be reached.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks