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DePaul Law Professor Sues University

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Another DePaul University professor is in the news after filing a civil rights lawsuit against the university alleging racial discrimination.

College of Law professor Terry Smith’s lawsuit, filed in a Chicago federal court on February 28, contends that university officials retaliated against him due to his advocacy on issues of racial diversity at the law school and DePaul more broadly. Among the defendants are law dean Jennifer Rosato Perea and former DePaul president Rev. Dennis Holtschneider.

Terry Smith

The suit follows Smith’s earlier defense of a colleague’s use of the word “nigger” in a hypothetical situation posed to a law class, sparking backlash amongst some minority students at the time.

“There’s a material difference between sitting in a classroom and hearing the ‘N-word used in a criminal law hypothetical and enduring a work environment where Whites and minorities are afforded opportunities ahead of you because they are silent about institutional discrimination,” said Smith, a distinguished research professor of Law at DePaul. “There’s no justification for discriminating against someone because he opposes discrimination and vocalizes that opposition.”

Smith added that he has faced racial animus and a “hostile environment” since he first started at the college in 2010. His advocacy has included calling for more diverse hiring practices of faculty and the creation of the Faculty for Tenure Justice movement at DePaul along with professors Sumi Cho and Valerie Johnson. In an open letter in 2016, he called for former DePaul president Rev. Dennis Holtschneider to step down for what he says was a failure to protect Black students’ right to protest the racial provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ visit to campus.

Other claims in Smith’s suit allege that as a result of his association and collaboration with Cho on anti-discrimination issues, Smith faced “systemic and ongoing exclusion from committee and administrative posts” and “professional ostracization” by colleagues.

After recommending Cho for a position on a dean search committee, Smith’s suggestion was rejected and another minority colleague “who was far less outspoken” than Cho was selected, Smith said. A subsequent attempt to defend Cho’s candidacy for a position on the University Board on Promotion and Tenure (UBPT) led to law faculty ousting Smith from his position as a Faculty Council alternate, a position with little completion historically, Smith noted.

“It was very evident to me then that the law school and DePaul University had a deep fear of outspoken people of color who cannot be marginalized on traditional metrics such as scholarly productivity and teaching,” Smith said.

Smith now faces termination after a recommendation from Dean Perea following a separate investigation into complaints by other law faculty. The recommendation stems from accusations of “a pattern of bullying that rises to the level of extreme intimidation and aggression,” the suit said.

Perea said that she has an obligation to protect the law school community “from bullying in any form.”

“Bullying is inconsistent with the values of our academic mission, professional ethics and DePaul’s Vincentian tradition of respect for the dignity of every person,” she said in a statement.

The university released its own statement in response to Smith’s lawsuit, saying that “erroneous details” were circulating about the matter. It added that Perea launched a disciplinary process following an investigation due to “numerous” and “long-standing” complaints from law faculty about “disruptive and inappropriate workplace behavior by two of their colleagues” – Smith and Cho.

“Specifically, the investigation looked into allegations that these individuals have inflicted several acts of professional and personal bullying on their colleagues, including junior faculty and faculty of color,” the statement read.

It continued: “The investigation was conducted fairly and objectively, according to the university’s established disciplinary process. It was motivated only by the desire to get to the bottom of the complaints about bullying, discord and toxic behavior, and to address those complaints in a way that protects the community and enables the law school to move forward together.”

Smith responded to the disciplinary suggestions from Perea.

“Of course, Professor Cho and I are ‘bullies’ in the eyes of our colleagues for pressing them to bring back minority candidates. Are we in high school, and is [Perea] a schoolmarm or the dean of a national law school? [She] has never defined bullying, let alone distinguished professional from personal bullying.”

Smith said the next steps for his lawsuit include receiving a formal response to his complaint. Separately, DePaul University’s investigation into the bullying allegations is ongoing.

“The faculty facing discipline are being given due process, which includes opportunities to respond to the allegations,” the school said.

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tpennamon@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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