U. OF MICHIGAN FACES 3 LAWSUITS FROM FORMER PROFESSORS ALLEGING RACIAL BIAS
By ALISON SCHNEIDER
The University of Michigan is busy fending off allegations of racism raised by three former faculty members on the Ann Arbor campus. The three have filed discrimination suits against the university.
The university would not comment on the specific allegations of the lawsuits, filed by a former faculty member in the business school and two in the medical school. However, Julie Peterson, a Michigan spokeswoman, said none of the employment decisions made in the three cases were racially motivated.
The cases were filed in state court, and none seek a specific amount of damages.
Ojelanki K. Ngwenyama, an assistant professor in the business school's department of computer and information systems, sued the university last July, alleging that his denial of tenure had been tainted by racial bias. He was the first and only black professor in the 10-member department.
Dr. Ngwenyama says his department chairman, Michael Gordon, and the dean of the business school, B. Joseph White -- both of whom are named in the suit -- violated his right to due process during the tenure review. He says that he was treated differently from his white colleagues -- that he was given a heavier teaching load, was never assigned a mentor, was denied money from the business school for his research, and was paid a lower salary than white professors with less seniority.
There's a perception at the business school, he says, "that if you have too many black faces around, the neighborhood is going downhill."
Dr. White would not discuss the allegations, but he noted that diversity at the business school had improved, from 12 minority professors out of 112 in 1987 to 26 out of 124 in 1997. The number of black professors continues to lag, though. The business school had only four black professors in 1996, and only one had tenure.
"We've had reasonable success in recruiting African-American faculty over the last 10 years, but we haven't had good retention." Dr. White says. He called improving those statistics "a personal priority."
That won't happen soon enough for Dr. Ngwenyama. He resigned from the business school in July and has created a World-Wide Web site (http://www.okn.com/) to publicize his case, which was recently removed to federal court.
Peggie J. Hollingsworth, an assistant research scientist at the medical school, won't be returning to Michigan this fall either. She was laid off in December after being repeatedly turned down for promotion. Last May, she filed a lawsuit accusing the university of race and gender discrimination.
The pharmacology department had recommended her for a tenure-track job, which would have made her the first black woman to receive such a post in the department. But the university formed a special committee to reconsider the recommendation -- an unprecedented step, her complaint says -- and it reversed the decision.
Dr. Hollingsworth was later recommended by her department for a non-tenure-track promotion as a researcher, but the executive committee of the medical school turned it down. Several people on that panel, her complaint says, are known to have made discriminatory remarks against blacks in the past.
She filed a grievance to protest the handling of her case. The process is supposed to be kept confidential, but the provost of the university at the time, Gilbert R. Whitaker, Jr. -- also a defendant in the case -- allegedly obtained copies of the confidential papers and distributed them to campus leaders. Dr. Whitaker, now a dean at Rice University, declined to comment.
The complaint said the disclosure was intended to retaliate against her for opposing race and gender discrimination.
Thomas D. Landefeld, a former assistant dean of graduate studies at the medical school, says he knows what that's like. A tenured associate professor of pharmacology, he says the university retaliated against him for speaking out about racial problems at the medical school. He sued in February and his case is in discovery.
Dr. Landefeld, who is white, served on almost every diversity committee at Michigan, tried to recruit minority students, and worked as interim assistant dean for student and minority affairs.
He also did some things that he thinks upset many on campus -- testifying on behalf of a minority student in a discrimination case and speaking out, both on the campus and in local newspapers, about what he saw as overt racism at the medical school. And he protested the appointment of a colleague to the post of minority-affairs representative for the pharmacology department, charging that the man was known to have made racist comments.
Dr. Landefeld says Michigan retaliated against him for his advocacy, noting that he was never promoted to full professor and was denied normal raises. He also says the university stripped him of the rights of tenure by refusing to let him recruit students and barring him from committee appointments.
"Even with tenure," Dr. Landefeld says, "things can be taken away from you in such a way that even if you have a job, it may not be much of a job. I had been constructively demoted."
In 1996, he requested a one-year leave of absence to take a temporary position as associate dean for faculty affairs at California State University-Dominguez Hills. The university rejected his request, but Dr. Landefeld, who thought the decision would ultimately be reversed, took the job anyway. Michigan says he resigned. He says he didn't.
Dr. Landefeld says he decided to sue not because he cares about getting his job back -- he has a tenured post at Dominguez Hills as a biology professor -- or because he's hoping for a big monetary award. He sued "to make a change in the environment for minority students at the school."
In addition to a standard request for damages, Dr. Landefeld has asked the court to enjoin the university from engaging in discriminatory acts and from denying people admission to the medical school on the basis of race or national origin.
Racial problems at the medical school came to light after a 1996 diversity report by an outside consultant found that black professors were "the most disaffected and disenfranchised" faculty members there. The environment at the medical school could be characterized as "toxigenic" for minority professors, the report said.
According to David Gordon, assistant dean for faculty affairs at the medical school, 10 to 15 per cent of the medical students belong to minority groups, compared with only 5 per cent of its graduate students and 2 per cent of its professors.
"I don't think any of us can sit down and look at any institution in this country of any size and say racism doesn't exist," says Ms. Peterson, the Michigan spokeswoman. "The university feels strongly that the process followed was fair and appropriate, and that these cases are not examples of institutional racism."
Dr. Landefeld sums up his position more succinctly: "Do
what's right, not what's white."