Female Grad Student Loses Appeal in Suit Against Penn State - Higher Education

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Female Grad Student Loses Appeal in Suit Against Penn State


by Eric Freedman


Lisa Powers

Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said Lisa Powers said, “We believe the court’s decision speaks for itself.”

A graduate student who was dismissed from a Pennsylvania State University doctoral program has lost her appeal in a gender discrimination, retaliation and hostile educational environment case.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate a suit by Yan Yan against PSU, the chair of her program, and a male doctoral student in her lab.

The Intercollegiate Graduate Program in Cell and Developmental Biology admitted Yan as a Ph.D. candidate in June 2007, the decision said. She was assigned as a teaching assistant and to conduct research in the program chair’s lab and was scheduled to take her comp exam in the summer of 2008.

In a January 2008 lab accident, Yan broke two fingers. The next month, she complained to campus police that the doctoral student who was the senior lab assistant had threatened and intimidated her, leading to the injury. After an internal investigation, the two students were advised to stay away from each other, according to the court.

Yan failed her comp exam in May and was terminated from her lab position. She appealed on the grounds of her injury, the alleged harassment and the fact that the exam date had been moved up from the summer, the decision said. PSU agreed to let her retake the exam but she didn’t show up on the new date and was dismissed from the program.

She sued under Title IX and Section 1983, alleging gender-based discrimination, harassment and retaliation for filing the police and accident reports and for applying for workers’ compensation benefits. A lower-court judge threw out the case without trial.

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In a unanimous decision, the three-judge appeals panel upheld that ruling, citing “an absence of evidence to support Yan’s case.” For example, it said the hostile educational environment claim failed because Yan didn’t demonstrate that the alleged sexual harassment was sufficiently “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” and that the university was “deliberately indifferent to known acts” of harassment.

Although Yan made a general complaint about the other doctoral student’s conduct, the court saw “no evidence that she’d notified authorities that his behavior was the result of gender discrimination or that she’d specifically complained to the program chair about his behavior. Finally, Yan admitted that his alleged harassment ceased once the administrative directives were issued,” it said. In addition, Yan claimed the rescheduling of her comp exam was a “sham” and retaliatory, but the court found no proof that she’d notified PSU of her gender bias complaints before taking the exam or demonstrated that any official university policy violated her constitutional rights.

Lisa Powers, the university’s director of public information, said, “We believe the court’s decision speaks for itself.”

Yan represented herself in the appeal.

Assistant Professor Denied

A former assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke has lost a Title VII gender discrimination and retaliation suit based on denial of paid maternity leave and failure to promote her to a tenure-stream position.

U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan agreed with the university that Dr. Rachel McBroom did not show sufficient evidence to warrant a trial.

UNCP hired McBroom in 2003 as a full-time biology instructor. She also served as director of science education programs but was not officially in that position because she hadn’t completed her Ph.D. In spring 2008, she received a paid leave to work on her degree but didn’t finish it.

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In 2009, her department chair notified her that UNCP policy prohibited employment as an instructor for more than seven years and said she would be promoted to assistant professor if she completed her doctorate. Later that year, McBroom notified the chair that she was pregnant and wanted to avoid introductory labs where she would be exposed to chemicals. She was told that paid maternity leave would be approved and she would become an assistant professor without an open search if she finished her degree by a specified deadline.

McBroom complained to the EEOC blaming a less favorable performance evaluation on sex discrimination and her request for benefits. A second EEOC charge alleged retaliation.

She withdrew her application for the tenure-stream position, which went to another woman.

In her decision, Flanagan rejected the sex discrimination claim because McBroom’s performance evaluation had no “tangible effect” on the terms and conditions of employment because the North Carolina legislature didn’t grant raises to state employees that year.

Flanagan also found no legal basis for the retaliation claims.

Scott Bigelow of the UNCP communications and marketing office said the university does not generally comment on pending litigation.

Western Michigan U. Cleared

A federal judge has cleared Western Michigan University in a civil rights suit brought by an Egyptian citizen who was dismissed from its geosciences doctoral program and then lost Egyptian government financial support for his studies.

Hatem El Ssayed began the program in January 2008. The suit claims he was doing well until he complained about a professor moving a course off campus, leading some faculty members and other students to turn against him.

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The suit also alleged that Egyptian students complained to their embassy that he “was conducting an Islamic lobby against Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian government,” prompting the embassy to withdraw its support and to deny him a transfer to another university.

Western Michigan dismissed him from the program in April 2010.

El Ssayed filed the suit himself against the university and several faculty members, administrators and students, alleging discrimination based on religion and race.

In throwing out the case, U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist said El Ssayed failed to offer any specific facts showing a conspiracy to deprive him of his civil rights or to show that the defendants “were motivated by some animus against Egyptian or Muslim students.”

Quist also found no legal basis for claims of libel, violation of FERPA or violation of state and federal criminal laws.

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