Northeastern State University never should have let two faculty members that it had reprimanded for discriminating against a Native American colleague take part in a subsequent vote to deny him promotion and tenure, a federal judge has ruled.
As reported by The National Law Review on Thursday, the judge determined last month that the Oklahoma university had left the Native American faculty member sufficiently exposed to possible retaliation to let his discrimination lawsuit against it go to trial.
Had the two previously reprimanded professors been removed from the tenure-decision process in question, “this would be a different case,” said the ruling, which was handed down by Judge Ronald A. White of the U.S. District Court in Muskogee, Okla. Because the two were allowed to have a say in the tenure rejection, Judge White wrote, he could not grant the university’s request to dismiss the lawsuit against it and several of its administrators and faculty members.
The ruling said Northeastern State had shown “reasonable care” in reprimanding the two in 2010 over racist statements made about Leslie Hannah, an associate professor of English, but the university had failed to “take appropriate steps to end any remaining hostility” and should not have assumed it would play no role in their stand on his 2012 tenure bid. “Two years is not a significant amount of time,” Judge White wrote. “It is more than plausible and rather likely” that the professors he had accused still felt animosity, and “there is evidence that the hostility among them remained prevalent.”
Although Mr. Hannah’s tenure bid had been opposed by other faculty members and by some administrators as well, it is possible the two reprimanded faculty members had “influenced others’ opinions of Dr. Hannah before and during the application process,” the judge wrote. Phillip Bridgmon, a dean, wrote in opposing the tenure application that Mr. Hannah “had polarized the department and displayed hostility toward other faculty and staff,” the judge’s ruling said.
Mr. Hannah had filed discrimination complaints against his two fellow English professors after they made offensive remarks about his Native American background in attacking him on Facebook. The university determined that the statements did not amount to hate crimes but nonetheless were racial references showing poor judgment. A third English professor whom Mr. Hannah accused of making offensive remarks on Facebook about his heritage—the spouse of one of the others accused—also was reprimanded and soon after resigned as part of a settlement with the university.