This story has been updated to include a statement from Miami University.
The widow of a Miami University assistant provost has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Miami University, the Board of Trustees and former provost Jason Osborne.
William Knight, assistant provost for the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness, died by suicide two years ago today. The lawsuit, filed by Knight’s widow Adriene Knight, also names Ruth Groom, associate vice president for Academic Personnel, and Lindsay Carpenter, associate vice president for Budget and Analytics.
Adriene Knight’s attorney Angela Wallace, Osborne, Groom and Carpenter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
William Knight died on April 7, 2021, exactly two years ago. The recently filed lawsuit states that he died by suicide. According to the lawsuit, Osborne was his direct supervisor. Knight reported directly to Carpenter for his primary research project. Groom, a human resources representative, was responsible for addressing Knight’s complaints.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday afternoon with Butler County Courts. Along with the wrongful death lawsuit, Knight’s widow filed for intentional infliction of emotional distress, vicarious liability, conspiracy, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Adriene Knight is asking for in excess of $25,000 for each count, totaling at least $125,000 in damages.
In a statement to The Miami Student Tuesday, April 11, Alecia Lipton, associate director of media relations, wrote that Knight was a valued member of the community.
"His family and friends remain in our thoughts as they grieve, ask questions, and seek peace," Lipton wrote.
At the university, Knight’s responsibilities included leading the institutional research function and providing assistance to faculty and staff for student learning assessment and coordinating the strategic planning process.
During his career, Knight won multiple awards for institutional research when he was employed at Bowling Green State University, along with multiple awards for national Institutional Research organizations. He also worked on more than 200 publications, presentations and dissertations.
In his obituary, Knight was described as someone passionate about education and “a wonderful storyteller” who “valued family and friendship.”
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According to the lawsuit’s filing, Osborne requested a statistical report from Knight in January 2021. In February that year, Knight sent Osborne a draft of the report, which Osborne circulated despite Knight’s warnings that it was not ready to be shared. After Osborne received “negative comments from the recipients of the report about the accuracy of the data,” the filing alleged that he “set out to destroy William.”
“William’s workload, which was already in excess of 60 hours per week, immediately increased dramatically with the new requirements to validate and explain every step to Carpenter,” the lawsuit reads. “William communicated with the Provost to request a reduction in his workload, which was denied.”
In emails obtained by The Miami Student last summer as part of its investigation into Osborne’s resignation, Knight shared his history of depression with Osborne in a March 19 email and said he was aware that Osborne wasn’t satisfied with his performance.
“I am aware that my work over the past few weeks has not been acceptable to you and has caused you to lose trust in me as a senior leader in Academic Affairs,” Knight wrote. “With this in mind I am thinking it is in the best interests of all of us if I seek new employment at another university.”
In his response, Osborne mentioned that Knight had spoken about his mental health multiple times in recent months. "We can and will accommodate whatever is needed to support your long-term wellness," Osborne wrote. He also added that he would "not hold it against" Knight if he sought employment elsewhere and that they would "celebrate those opportunities."
In her statement to the university, Lipton said Knight's colleagues offered support to Knight when he brought up his struggles with mental health.
"We believe the lawsuit filed against the university regarding the death of Dr. Knight is unjustified," Lipton wrote in a statement to The Student. "When Dr. Knight expressed his concerns that his mental health challenges were significantly affecting his work, his supervisor and colleagues responded with compassion and provided support and resources to help him succeed."
According to the lawsuit, Knight’s mental and physical health began declining. He requested medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but processing the application was “intentionally delayed by Groom,” according to the lawsuit. Knight didn’t believe he’d be able to find employment at another university if he were laid off. On April 5, 2021, Knight was informed he would be required to meet with Osborne, Carpenter and other senior administration for a meeting concerning “personnel issues.”
On Feb. 21, 2021, Knight had requested in an email to Osborne to cut down on his workload for a few weeks and treat the time period as if he was “recuperating from a serious illness, which isn’t far from the truth.” If the slower pace didn’t help, he suggested that the next step would be a full break.
Osborne responded by thanking Knight for sharing his experience and wrote, “We will find a way forward that is sustainable for everyone.”
“William was confident that he would be terminated at that meeting,” the lawsuit reads.
Knight died two days later, the same day the meeting was supposed to be held.
The lawsuit alleges that Osborne, Carpenter and Groom “engaged in a malicious pattern of harassment, bullying, and gaslighting, berating William, questioning his skills and his ability to do work, commenting on William’s lack of intelligence, and questioning his commitment and loyalty to Miami University.”
The filing alleges that the defendants’ conduct was “extreme and dangerous” and was “the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s serious emotional distress, including Knight’s death.”
According to the filing, Knight left his wife a final note at the time of his death.
“‘I am so sorry,’” Knight wrote, according to the filing. “‘I am sorry that I just wasn’t strong enough this time. My greatest hope was to make it to retirement with you and just live our life free from worry and fear, but when I was told yesterday that I have to attend a meeting about ‘personnel issues,’ presumably about firing [Knight’s co-worker] and/or me, they finally broke me. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself back up this time.’”
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Additional reporting by Editor-In-Chief Sean Scott and Managing Editor Luke Macy.