Federal Courts Rebuff Faculty Discrimination Suits

By Freedman, Eric | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

Federal Courts Rebuff Faculty Discrimination Suits


Freedman, Eric, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Educators face uncertain future with lack of promotion, tenure and increasingly hostile work environment.

Federal judges in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Arizona and have dealt major setbacks to faculty members in lawsuits alleging racial discrimination at three universities:

Duquense University

In Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Nora Fischer dismissed most claims by Kellen McClendon, a tenured African -American associate professor who was passed over for dean of the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh.

McClendon alleged that racial bias played a role in denying him even an initial interview during a 2004 dean's search. The hiring committee chairman, Duquense Provost Ralph Pearson, reportedly told another committee member at the time that he "did not want to advance a 'token' to the interview stage," according to court documents.

When the deanship reopened in late 2008, the school appointed a White professor without administrative experience as the interim dean, over the current associate dean, who was Black. The move convinced McClendon that it would have been futile for him to even apply for the permanent position, he said, because the committee was still chaired by Pearson. The committee again interviewed no minority candidates.

Fischer ruled that McClendon waited too long to sue based on the 2004 search. The statute of limitations on such actions in Pennsylvania is two years, but McClendon waited until 2010 to file suit. She also said the fact that he didn't apply for the reopened position barred his claim for failure to hire or promote.

Nor did McClendon offer enough proof of a racially hostile work environment to warrant a trial, she said. Such an environment occurs only when the workplace is severely and pervasively permeated with "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult." The judge found that McClendon "asserted isolated acts that are not so severe as to demonstrate, if proved, an abusive situation constituting a hostile work environment."

The decision let stand McClendon's retaliation claim, however.

Northeastern Illinois University

In another case, Dr. Loretta Capeheart failed to persuade a judge to let her pursue a federal retaliation claim against Northeastern Illinois University and three of its administrators.

She alleged retaliation for exercising her free speech rights in addressing the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus about the university's small number of Hispanic faculty and students.

In her complaint, Capeheart, a tenured associate professor of justice studies and a "self-described activist," said, "They took me down for having the gall to say we need more Latino faculty."

She also claimed retaliation for opposing CIA and military recruitment on campus and for criticizing the university's treatment of student demonstrators who were arrested during a protest. …

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