Diverse Docket: Nigerian-born Student Loses Bias Suit - Higher Education
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Diverse Docket: Nigerian-born Student Loses Bias Suit

by Eric Freedman


U.S. District Magistrate Judge Howard Lloyd of San Jose said Golden Gate University had valid reasons to flunk John Nkwuo.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Howard Lloyd of San Jose said Golden Gate University had valid reasons to flunk John Nkwuo.

A Nigerian-born graduate student who failed his doctoral qualifying exam three times has lost a lawsuit accusing Golden Gate University of discrimination and other claims.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Howard Lloyd of San Jose, California, ruled that the university had valid, nondiscriminatory reasons to flunk John Nkwuo and dismiss him from its Doctor of Business Administration program.

Nkwuo enrolled in August 2010 and failed the anonymously graded written qualifying exam in 2011 and 2013, according to the decision.

Under the DBA program manual, a second failure results in automatic dismissal, but Golden Gate gave Nkwuo a third opportunity by letting him take an oral exam. He failed that too in 2013, leading to his dismissal.

An administrative appeal was unsuccessful.

In his decision, Lloyd said the race discrimination allegations fell short under both Title VI and the state civil rights law. He noted, for example, that five out of six African-American students in the program had passed the qualifying exam since 2010. Among all students, 33 of 41 passed the test.

Lloyd found no direct or indirect evidence of discrimination and noted that Nkwuo had testified that no faculty member ever mentioned his race.

Lloyd also rejected Nkwuo’s allegation that a professor unfairly kicked him out of a course, ruling that Nkwuo acknowledged failing to complete a mandatory assignment due before the first class meeting.

Similarly, the judge found no factual basis for a Title VI racially hostile environment and harassment claim.

Ruling stands

An $848,690 Detroit jury award against Wayne State University in a Title IX pregnancy discrimination and retaliation suit will stand, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled.

The unanimous three-judge panel rejected a series of challenges to the verdict in favor of Tina Varlesi, an unmarried student who was dismissed from a master’s program in social work in her final semester.

According to the decision, Varlesi earned outstanding grades in her classes and the highest possible grade in her field placements during her first year in the program.

During the second year while pregnant, however, Varlesi had conflicts with her field placement supervisors. The decision cited discriminatory comments by her faculty adviser, the university’s director of field education and her field instructor, including remarks that she should wear looser clothes, stop “rubbing her belly” and “drop out of the program because of her pregnancy.”

Varlesi received a failing evaluation from her field instructor after a placement at an all-male rehabilitation center for ex-convicts and drug addicts.

The university admitted that the instructor’s evaluation “was the worst any WSU social worker student had ever received,” and there was evidence at trial that the evaluation was “procedurally deficient and much of it was unsubstantiated, biased and substantively untrue,” the court said.

Wayne State rejected Varlesi’s formal discrimination charge on the grounds that the School of Social Work had already investigated it, although the school had conducted no such investigation.

In a decision written by Judge Alice Batchelder, the appeals court found no basis for the university’s objections, including challenges to evidentiary rulings and the argument that the verdict was excessive.

Suit dismissed

A federal judge in Ohio has dismissed a national origin discrimination and retaliation suit by a China-born former assistant professor at Youngstown State University.

The university showed that Dr. Min Li’s low research and publication productivity provided a legitimate nondiscriminatory basis to deny her tenure, U.S. District Judge Benita Pearson ruled.

Li moved to YSU from Ferris State University in Michigan as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Gerontology in fall 2008, according to the decision.

The university requires faculty to report outside employment, but Li continued to teach online courses for Ferris State without disclosing that activity until spring 2010, the decision said.

It also said she received research grants that entitled her to a course reduction in 2008-09 and 2009-10 but “did not complete her own research proposals, as she did not give any national presentations based on that research” as the grants required.

During Li’s pre-tenure review, she was advised to focus on “positive scholarship outcomes” but still didn’t publish any articles or give any national conference presentations between the pre-tenure review and her fall 2012 tenure application, the decision said.

During the tenure process, YSU discovered that Li had underreported the number of semester hours she had taught online for Ferris State, leading to an eventual Professional Conduct Committee recommendation for a written reprimand.

Also during the tenure process, Li and the department chair, who also was born in China, had a disagreement about an email concerning protests in Shanghai about mass killings by Japanese troops during World War II.

The department faculty unanimously recommended tenure, but the department chair recommended against tenure, as did the dean, provost and president.

Her appeal was rejected, and she taught in 2013-14 under a terminal contract.

In her decision, Pearson threw out the Title VII claim against YSU and the Section 1983 claim against the department chair.

Li “does not argue that YSU’s decision to deny tenure—her failure of producing scholarship worthy of tenure—had no basis in fact and did not actually motivate YSI’s action,” Person said.

“The undisputed evidence, the collective bargaining agreement and the individuals involved in the tenure review process reflect multiple, independent inquiries into a tenure candidate’s qualifications,” she wrote.

In addition, Pearson said Li’s disagreement with the chair about forwarding the protest-related email didn’t demonstrate retaliation for exercise of First Amendment free speech rights because it was undisputed that the chair would have recommended against tenure even without that disagreement.

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