Michigan Jury Sides With UM Over Professors of Color - Higher Education
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Michigan Jury Sides With UM Over Professors of Color

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Is it a level playing field for professors of color in academia?

Here’s a story that broke before Christmas that will make you question what it takes to prove discrimination.

Two university professors of color who sued the University of Michigan for multiple violations of the Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil rights Act say they will continue to fight for justice after a jury rejected their claims Dec. 20 in Ann Arbor.

Scott Kurashige, a Japanese American who had been with the university since 2000 and fully tenured since 2012, and his wife Emil Lawsin, a Filipino American lecturer in women’s studies and American culture since 2000, filed the civil suit in 2017.

“Since then we’ve revealed smoking gun evidence exposing the systemic machinations behind the firing, failed retention, and denial of hire of activist faculty of color,” Kurashige said in a Facebook post after the jury’s verdict against them.  “We’ve exposed how the complaints of PhD students of color being harassed and stigmatized by white faculty were met with cover up and retaliation. And how critical thinking and the education of students were sacrificed to continue the cover up. We couldn’t convince a nearly all-white jury this violated the law. But the truth is out there, so we’ll live to fight another day.”

Kurashige’s attorney Alice Jennings said an appeal is planned.

The jury deliberated for just two hours before siding with the university.

“We especially thank the members of the jury for their time and attention during the trial,” UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told reporters. “We respect the seriousness with which they approached their responsibility.”

Emil Guillermo

The suit claimed that Kurashige’s outspokenness in exposing the school’s student profile led to his termination as director of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies Program in 2013. Kurashige cited the university’s damning statistics:  4.1 percent Black, 4.6 percent Hispanic, 0.2 percent Native American in 2015; Only 4 percent of students from low-economic backgrounds in 2014.

He also showed how because of his aggressive advocacy for professors of color, the university reacted forcing as many as 20 full time faculty of color to leave UM between 1997 and 2016. Many were denied tenure despite strong academic records; others cited their perception of racial bias on the part of the university.

“Some of them, including myself, were fired pushed away, or even left academia because of the hostile climate of that place (UM). And I think what really gets people is the hypocrisy,” Kurashige told me during a podcast interview on “Emil Amok’s Takeout.” “At other places, people get denied tenure, they contest it, they either win or lose. At Michigan, though, there’s always this insistence that no matter what their practice is, their rhetoric never changes, (they say) they’re so committed, they’re the national leaders in the pursuit of diversity and equity.”

Kurashige said the pattern was clear in his department.

“I had people coming directly to me saying that either they or the students they were mentoring were being harassed or attacked by faculty and administrators who had authority or power over them,”Kurashige said. “A number of people were denied tenure in unjust cases in which faculty of color going up for tenure or applying for jobs had much superior qualifications to Whites who got positions.

“What happened in our department was effectively ‘reverse affirmative action’ so that White people could get positions teaching about race and ethnicity over more qualified people of color. It happened again and again in terms of admissions, in terms of faculty hiring, in terms of promoting faculty for tenure and leadership program.”

Kurashige talked about how he himself was blacklisted by the school, with negative files created about him  without his knowledge or substantiation.

He said when he was fired, the university changed his position from a college-level position to a departmental position which allowed his bosses to sidestep a hearing process.

It left a lawsuit as the only viable  remedy.

Nearly three years later, Kurashige, who left UM and is now at the University of Washington-Bothell, and his wife, still a lecturer at UM, remain positive about their fight for justice.

“I think if you look at the process as a whole, beyond what was presented in the courtroom itself, there is massive, undisputed evidence of misconduct, corruption and disparate treatment by university officials at the departmental level, all the way up to the provost level in the highest ranks of the university,”Kurashige told reporters last week.

Lawsin told me when the suit was filed that much  of what happened occurred while she pregnant with a daughter with Down syndrome. She was laid off upon returning from family leave,  but regained her job as lecturer. She claimed the harassment toward her and Kurashige became too much.

“If these acts of discrimination could happen to Scott, who was a full professor with tenure with the most major awards any one can receive in our field, and happen to me as a senior lecturer, what would happen to those below us, or who came after us?” Lawsin told me in 2017.

With an appeal being discussed, it seems the jury’s verdict didn’t seem to change the couple’s resolve.

But for those people of color considering academic careers, the experience of Kurashige and Lawsin should give us all pause.

Maybe it depends on the discipline or the school, but at some point one must ask: Is academic life worth the fight?

It’s a different question for school administrators: Are you doing all you can to make things better for diversity?

Or are you quietly preserving the past?

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok. 

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