Professor’s firing over ‘threats’ was racist, claims AAUP

Black academic suing former institution after it alleged he had advocated for ‘killing white people’

一月 30, 2023
Source: Chris Light / Creative Commons

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has condemned Indiana University Northwest for firing a tenured black professor after alleging he said “words to the effect that ‘the only way to end racism is to kill all the white people’”.

A new AAUP report calls “implausible” the allegation that the professor “actually threatened to hurt white people”, noting one person it interviewed who called his manner “mild and soothing”.

Mark McPhail was once the chief academic officer of IUN, as the campus is known. He was a communication professor at the time of his 2021 firing and is now interim vice president for academic affairs and provost at Oregon’s Linfield University. The AAUP released an investigative report today, citing interviews of nine current and former IU employees it conducted, atop a previous investigation done by IUN’s Faculty Board of Review.

“The [AAUP] committee cannot help drawing the sad conclusion that, if Professor McPhail had not questioned the racism on campus and at IU, he might have been spared, at least temporarily, from becoming a target of it,” the report says.

“The racial climate at IUN appears to be unwelcoming to faculty members of color,” the report says. “In Professor McPhail’s case, it appeared to have been downright hostile, as evidenced by the presence of racist tropes of incompetent, angry and physically violent Black men in the language used to justify his dismissal.”

The report says IUN cited IU’s whistle-blower policy to decline “to identify the individuals who allegedly reported that Professor McPhail had made threats of violence, leaving Professor McPhail to bear the additional burden of refuting the claims of anonymous accusers”.

The AAUP also says Professor McPhail was given no hearing before his firing. Instead, the report says, he was fired in September 2021 when three campus police officers showed up at his Wisconsin home, 150 miles from the Gary campus, and delivered a trespass notice threatening arrest if he entered university property.

“After he made a telephone call that evening to the office of a colleague in Bloomington [Indiana], police officers notified him that his call had violated the trespass notice,” the report says.

The month before all this, the university had suspended Professor McPhail from teaching and cut his salary by 75 per cent after giving him a poor teaching evaluation, the AAUP wrote.

According to the Faculty Board of Review’s interviews, “none of the three people who had spoken directly to Professor McPhail between his suspension and dismissal stated that he had made any threat of violence”, the AAUP wrote.

The AAUP said IUN cited McPhail’s ongoing federal lawsuit – against the IU trustees and three IUN officials – as the reason for not responding to a draft of the report and an invitation for corrections. AAUP said IUN asked it not to contact its employees.

“One potential faculty interviewee even reported being under ‘strict instructions from IU Legal to direct all inquiries about the McPhail case to its office,’” AAUP wrote.

“We disagree with the AAUP report, investigation and characterisation of the university’s handling of this situation,” an IUN spokeswoman wrote in an email. “Because this involves ongoing litigation, we cannot comment further at this time.”

The lawsuit Professor McPhail filed seeks, among other things, back pay, punitive damages and reinstatement next academic year.

One professor did tell the Faculty Board of Review that he spoke with Professor McPhail after his suspension and then contacted the university administration because he was concerned “McPhail was distraught and in need of support”, the AAUP wrote.

Parts of the AAUP report say it’s directly quoting from the faculty board’s earlier report.

In one such section, this professor said “he had discussed the history of racism in the US with McPhail” and Professor McPhail said, “if indigenous people had killed all the early white settlers, racism would not have established itself in the Americas”.

This section states that the professor said he mentioned “McPhail’s view” to an administrator “to impress upon her how deeply McPhail felt about systemic racism in the US”, i.e., it was not to say Professor McPhail was threatening.

“The [AAUP] committee is not aware of a single person who spoke directly with Professor McPhail after he received notice of suspension who stated that he posed a threat,” the report says. “Only two IUN administrators, both of whom received their information secondhand and one of whom had a fraught relationship with Professor McPhail, according to the [Faculty Board of Review], interpreted his speech to be violent and threatening.”

The report says Cynthia Roberts, dean of IUN’s School of Business and Economics, told the faculty board a different story about what the above-mentioned professor told her. She said the professor told her he was concerned Professor McPhail’s “state of mind could lead to ‘harm to self or others’” and told her that “McPhail had said that the solution to racism is to kill all white people”.

The AAUP wrote that David Klamen, the dean over Professor McPhail, “reported that a university attorney had advised him that there was a ‘serious threat against him and that therefore he should stay away from campus, leave his home, move to a hotel and temporarily relocate his family as well.’ He also reported that the IUN police chief had twice contacted him and provided safety advice.”

Professor McPhail says he complained to IUN in 2018 that Professor Klamen was appointed without a search. He has alleged his pretermination suspension was actually “in retaliation for his complaints about Klamen’s appointment and his complaints about racial discrimination and [earlier alleged] retaliation”, according to his lawsuit.

IUN had 3,460 students as of fall 2021. Of the roughly 3,060 undergraduates, 48 per cent were white and 16 per cent were black. About 78 per cent of Gary residents are black.

“Many of the anonymous interviewees discussed the tense racial climate on campus and named numerous faculty members and administrators of color who had left IUN or were ‘driven out,’” the report says.

“Fighting hostile work environments while serving as ‘tokens’ on administrative ‘leadership cabinets’ without any ability to effect meaningful change would understandably take a deep toll on faculty members of color,” it says.

In an accompanying news release, the AAUP said a committee will now consider recommending to AAUP’s governing council placing IUN on the list of censured administrations.

“Placement on that list informs the academic community and the public at large that conditions for academic freedom and tenure at the institution are unsound,” the AAUP said.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.



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