Poet Alleges Discrimination at Cleveland State University

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by Jamal Eric Watson

An outspoken tenured professor of English at Cleveland State University whose discrimination lawsuit against the Ohio school is scheduled for a November trial has been served a termination letter only weeks before classes start, according to documents obtained exclusively by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

Associate Professor Nuala M. Archer, an internationally distinguished poet who joined CSU’s English Department in 1990 after teaching at Yale University, was notified in a July 22, 2011, letter signed by Provost Geoffery S. Mearns that her dismissal was “because of a pattern of conduct that violated” the collective bargaining agreement between the university and the CSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, “as well as the basic tenets of professionalism and collegiality.” 

But Archer, in court documents, maintains that the attempted firing—which she is contesting through the union’s grievance process and before Ohio’s State Board of Personnel Review—is yet another wrinkle in a long and concerted effort to destroy and eliminate a vocal critic of alleged discrimination in CSU’s Department of English. 

In her appeal to the board, filed on August 1, Archer alleges retaliatory discipline and asserts whistleblower protection.

In the lawsuit, which she filed last year with Attorney Eric Hall, Archer, who is 56 and White, accuses CSU of age, gender and handicap discrimination, as well as retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The complaint charged that CSU “has given disparate treatment to substantially younger employees and male employees” and that Archer “has repeatedly been wrongfully denied promotion.” 

CSU has denied the allegations in court filings. CSU General Counsel Sonali Wilson and Mearns declined comment.

Amos Jones, a Washington, D.C.-based constitutional scholar whom Archer retained in late July as appellate counsel in anticipation of complex litigation, says that the conduct of CSU toward Archer is alarming, especially the timing of the letter of dismissal. 

“One of the smoking guns that has arisen over the course of Dr. Archer’s tenure is this July 22 letter, the issuance of which supports her claim that she has battled a retaliatory environment because of her raising issues of racial, gender and other problematic bias allegedly practiced by Cleveland State University,” says Jones, adding that Archer has fought for more than a decade, usually unsuccessfully, to bring students and faculty of color onto the largely White faculty. 

“She’s being railroaded for her outspokenness, in violation of the collective bargaining agreement and her basic rights as a citizen,” says Jones. “To call CSU’s documented violations of procedural and substantive due process glaring would be a gross understatement.”

Archer’s lawsuit further accused CSU of a concerted effort to falsely portray her as mentally unstable in recent years. “On or about June 25, 2010, Defendant sent Plaintiff a letter ordering her to submit to an independent medical examination on or before July 30, 2010 to determine whether Plaintiff was capable of performing the essential functions of her job with or without accommodation,” the complaint alleges. “The letter falsely accused Plaintiff of erratic, disruptive and unpredictable behavior.  Plaintiff did not request any accommodation from Defendant.  The letter threatened Plaintiff with termination if she did not comply.” 

On August 1 of this year, Archer filed a Motion for Injunction before the Court of Claims, challenging the July 22 termination letter and asking the judge in the impending trial to block the termination. CSU opposed that motion on the grounds that the collective bargaining agreement’s grievance process avails Archer recourse.

Jones contends that the assault on Archer has continued in the wake of her filing a collateral grievance, this one with the Ohio State Board of Personnel Review, also on August 1, in which Archer, assuming CSU would lock her out of her two faculty offices, alleged retaliatory actions and asserted whistleblower protection.

Cleveland State is being represented at the pending trail by Randall W. Knutti of the Ohio Attorney General’s office.  Knutti, who filed a memorandum opposing Archer’s motion, did not return a call seeking comment. 

Jones says that Ohio’s legal provisions controlling tenured educators who happen to be state employees are perplexing. 

“An institution of the State of Ohio is going on trial in November, and the State of Ohio is now charged with providing the legal defense of what CSU allegedly has done and is doing,” says Jones. “Yet, the State of Ohio also runs a review board that is to consider Dr. Archer’s challenge to Cleveland State’s attempted firing of Dr. Archer.  This regime raises serious constitutional questions.” 

It remains unclear whether Archer will be teaching this fall.

“If Cleveland State University is hell-bent on destroying the career of this distinguished academic by any means necessary, and denying her due process, then they, at the very least, need to plan on compensating her front pay for the 14 years beyond 2011 over which she would have served CSU with distinction, as she has over the last three decades,” Jones added.

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