Monday, February 8, 2010

Are Universities Breeding Grounds for Discrimination?

You might think that universities would be less likely than regular businesses to practice discrimination in the workplace. You might think, "If institutions of higher learning can't treat their employees fairly under the law, then who can? Surely college campuses don't tolerate discriminatory treatment."

Based on my personal experience, and a scan of recent news reports, you would be wrong. In fact, we are starting to think that college and university campuses might be even worse than non-academic workplaces when it comes to discrimination of all kinds.

Regular readers know that I was unlawfully terminated after 19 years of service at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB ), the victim of age discrimination, gender discrimination, wrongful termination, retaliation, and First Amendment violations. My case remains under investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a precursor to a lawsuit.

But I'm hardly alone when it comes to abuse in the academic work setting. The good news: Juries are showing that they are not afraid to hold universities accountable.

One of the most recent reports we've seen comes from the University of Pittsburgh, where a female radiation oncologist won a potential $3 million verdict on charges that the university's cancer institute treated her unlawfully after she raised concerns about discrimination.

Dr. Kristina Gerszten filed a federal lawsuit in September 2008, alleging that she had been discriminated against because of her gender and retaliated against for making the original complaint to hospital officials. The jury found against Gerszten on the sex-discrimination claim, but it found for her on retaliation.

The news has no shortage of stories about discrimination on university campuses. So much for secondary education being some kind of "higher calling," a setting where fundamental human rights are respected:

* The University of Michigan settled a lawsuit with a former dental student after a jury rendered a $1.72 million verdict against the university. UM had kicked Alissa Zwick out of the dental school allegedly for poor performance in clinical courses. Zwick claimed that she had been caught in an academic feud at the school, and a federal jury agreed with her.

* The University of Texas Pan American was ordered to pay about $350,000 after a jury found it had violated the Equal Pay Act following the demotion of a campus dean. Hilda Medrano had been dean of the college of education for about four years when she was demoted. Medrano filed a lawsuit, claiming that she had been paid less than her male counterparts.

* A state jury ordered the University of Southern Mississippi to pay $1.2 million to three former soccer coaches, all men, who said they were dismissed as retaliation for reporting sexual advances from a female administrator.

In a case that has not reached the courtroom phase, but will bear watching:

* Idaho State University fired a tenured engineering professor after a faculty appeals board found there was not enough evidence for termination. Prof. Habib Sadid had been suspended for what the university called unprofessional and insubordinate behavior. Sadid had sued the university in 2008, alleging breach of contract and deprivation of free-speech rights.

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