The University of Tennessee will pay $2.48 million to settle a federal lawsuit brought by eight women who accused the school of mishandling sexual assault cases.
The settlement, announced late Tuesday, brings to a close one of the highest-profile Title IX lawsuits against a university. The suit was filed in February, claiming the UT campus in Knoxville was biased in favor of student athletes and against female rape victims.
The state had already paid $220,862.82 to the law firm of Neal & Harwell for legal expenses, and estimated that it would have spent as much as $5.5 million if the case went all the way through trial and appeals, not including the payout to the plaintiffs at that time if UT lost.
The settlement was approved by all top levels of the UT administration, as well as the Tennessee attorney general, state comptroller and Gov. Bill Haslam.
The settlement was not immediately available Tuesday, pending its filing in federal court this week. But the Tennessean newspaper reports that as part of the settlement, the university said it will end a practice of giving out a list of local attorneys to athletes accused of misconduct.
Information was not immediately available about how the share of the settlement will be divided between the female plaintiffs and their attorneys.
"No university will be able to prevent every incident of students, faculty or staff making bad judgments," UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said in a statement. "Like many institutions we are not perfect, but our goal is to continue to be the best we can be at creating awareness, educating, and preventing discrimination and abuse in any form, and to continue to be equally prepared when it does happen and to deal with it promptly, sensitively, fairly and effectively."
UT System President Joe DiPietro will also appoint an "independent commission" in the coming weeks to review "existing programs and efforts around these issues and make recommendations to further strengthen these critical activities across the UT system," the university said.
"If we all can look ahead and imagine our state’s flagship university as a leader in awareness, education, support and aggressive response to these issues, this lawsuit and the resulting outcome would have contributed in a small way to the safety, well-being and hopeful futures of many young people who from time to time call the University of Tennessee home," the plaintiffs' attorney, David Randolph Smith, said in a statement.
To be sure, there are plenty of allegations in the lawsuit for the independent commission to review, including the charge that the university's athletic department had allowed the existence of a culture that condoned sexual violence.
The litigation process, including depositions, would have been the best shot the at answering many of those claims. Those include accusations that football coach Butch Jones belittled players who supported people who accused team members of sexual assault -- as one former player, Drae Bowles, claimed happened to him. Jones said those claims were "false," but phone records corroborated Bowles' timeline of the night he said the coach told him he "betrayed the team."
The civil suit also cited several cases of athletes allegedly committing assaults, including A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, two football players accused of raping one of the plaintiffs and awaiting separate upcoming trials, and former cornerback Riyahd Jones, who was accused of rape in February 2015.
Riyahd Jones transferred out of the UT football team just before being named in the rape case. After police dropped the charges because the woman declined to pursue criminal prosecution, he showed his appreciated for coach Butch Jones:
UT's settlement is one of the larger sums among such cases, but is on par with others. The University of Connecticut settled a similar Title IX suit with five plaintiffs for $1.3 million, while Florida State University settled a case this year with one plaintiff for $950,000.
Shortly after the civil complaint against Tennessee was filed, 16 UT coaches gathered to talk for close to an hour about how well student athletes were treated in Knoxville, and to boast that the university provides plenty of support for them to succeed on and off the field or court.