Western Washington University has fired its longtime admissions director for what the university describes as a pattern of lack of professional judgment.

Share story

Western Washington University has fired its longtime admissions director for what the university describes as a pattern of lack of professional judgment.

University officials said Karen Copetas retaliated against an employee, awarded scholarship money in exchange for work and influenced the award of scholarships to relatives.

Copetas, who has been admissions director at WWU for 21 years, has vigorously defended her decisions. She said WWU has treated her unfairly and has left her personal and professional life “in shambles.” She has 30 days to appeal the decision internally.

WWU made the decision Friday to fire Copetas, a decision based on an internal audit, two Equal Opportunity Office employee complaints and a climate assessment, said Steve Swan, vice president for university relations. The decision also hinged on Copetas’ oral and written responses to the complaints, in which there was a “denial of wrongdoing,” he said.

In an 11-page letter to Copetas, WWU’s senior vice president, Eileen Coughlin, laid out the case for why she was being terminated. Coughlin said that Copetas:

• Used scholarship awards for students to work as admissions-office tour guides, a potential violation of state and federal laws.

• Participated in the awarding of scholarships to relatives, an ethical violation.

• Retaliated against an employee for filing a discrimination complaint.

• Failed to address the issues raised in a climate assessment, which concluded that the work environment in her office was hostile.

Coughlin wrote that it was “the pattern of lack of professional judgment,” and not any one specific issue, that led to her decision to terminate Copetas effective Jan. 5.

In her letters responding to the internal audit and to Coughlin’s case for her dismissal, Copetas wrote that she believed the university did little to help her fix mistakes, made a decision in late September to fire her and was “generally hostile” to her.

“During this process you have provided very little guidance or support and in some cases have set me up for failure,” Copetas wrote. “Nothing about this process has been fair.”

According to Coughlin’s letter, the internal audit found that Copetas used scholarship awards in lieu of paying two students as admissions-office tour guides.

“Placing a scholarship recipient alongside hourly wage employees and indicating their scholarship is in lieu of pay violates state and federal laws,” Coughlin wrote. “Any requirement that some students perform work as a part of their scholarship creates unequal treatment, tax liability, problems with donor intent, and in some cases violations of federal law.”

Of audit findings that Copetas was involved in deciding scholarships for relatives, Coughlin wrote that the report “indicates that your participation could have influenced the outcome and created the impression that they should receive special treatment due to their relationship with you. The point of ethics standards in Admissions is to avoid not only special treatment but the appearance of special treatment.”

Wrote Copetas: “Even if the findings of the auditor were appropriate, and I do not agree they were, termination of my employment is not warranted.”

Copetas made $96,429 a year. Clara Capron, the director of financial aid for the university, is serving as acting admissions director, Swan said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.