Racial discrimination case against college continues

By Connor Carynski, Campus Editor

Courtesy Vaun Monroe
Vaun Monroe, a former professor in what was then known as the Film and Video Department, alleged his tenure denial was influenced by racial discrimination and has filed a suit against Columbia.

Vaun Monroe, Former professor in the then-Film and Video Department sued the school Aug. 10, claiming racial discrimination played a role in his 2013 tenure denial.

The complaint, which also names former Department Chair Bruce Sheridan as a defendant, alleges discriminatory treatment during Monroe’s seven years in the department.

The school responded Sept. 26 asking to dismiss the lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, arguing three of the lawsuit’s claims were not brought in a timely fashion.

Sheridan declined to comment on the pending litigation in an Oct. 3 email to The Chronicle.

Monroe is seeking reinstatement as a tenured professor and restitution of lost wages from Columbia for what he claims are violations of Titles VI and VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C. 1981, which respectively bar race-based discrimination in federally funded institutions, private employment and contracts.

Monroe is suing Sheridan on claims of intentional interference with his contractual relationships and “prospective economic advantage” for $1 million in actual damages and $3 million in punitive damages.

Monroe said in a Sept. 26 emailed statement to The Chronicle that he would not comment on the case but that the complaint speaks for itself, and he stands by the allegations.

This is not the first instance of alleged racial discrimination at Columbia. One of these incidents includes the Jan. 20 resignation of Michael Fry, former associate professor in the Television Department, who claimed to have experienced racial discrimination and culturally insensitive remarks from members of the department while working at the college, as reported Feb. 20 by The Chronicle.

Four other complaints of racial discrimination from full-time faculty members have been filed at Columbia since 2007, according to a Feb. 10 statement from college spokeswoman Anjali Julka.

Monroe claims racially motivated, negative student evaluations were used against him in his tenure evaluation and that he was denied the opportunity to teach advanced-level classes while with the college.

The complaint describes an incident after Monroe was hired in fall 2007 when he was assigned to teach a course called “Adaptation” during his first semester. Seven out of 10 students filled out course evaluations, some of whom criticizing the “African-American content” in the course, stating too much time was spent on issues of race.

According to the complaint, one learning objective of the course was to familiarize students with the obstacles of adapting literary work for the screen. Monroe chose Chester Himes’ novel “A Rage in Harlem,” which focused on crime in New York’s Harlem neighborhood that was adapted into a 1991 film.

In spring 2008, after teaching a course titled “Black Is, Black Ain’t: African American Identity in Cinema,” six out of 17 students completed evaluations, five of which were negative, according to the complaint.

The complaint also states that Monroe met with Sheridan at the end of his first year at the college. During the meeting, Monroe claims to have told Sheridan that he believed an implicit bias may have been responsible for the negative reviews because women and minority teachers dealing in course topics of race tend to receive lower marks on student evaluations.

Monroe claims Sheridan was dismissive and said Monroe “was playing the race card,” which the college and Sheridan deny in the Sept. 26 court filing.

Monroe also alleges that when he taught “Screenwriting 2” in fall 2008, he was contacted by his agent and told that a potential client was alarmed by some online information a student had posted about him. According to Monroe’s complaint, he later discovered a student in his course created a website called Black Supremacy on which the student posted a picture of Monroe with racially offensive statements.

The complaint then says he contacted both the department’s screenwriting coordinator and associate chair regarding the website but was advised to do nothing to correct the situation. Monroe also contends in the complaint that the student who created the website was permitted to file a course evaluation at the end of the semester, but the defendants insist in their response that they did not “affirmatively” facilitate the evaluation.

Monroe claims he was asked Oct. 10, 2010, to participate in a third-year performance review at the college. Monroe was the first individual in the department to participate in the review since the college began requiring one in its revised tenure process.

During the review meeting, Monroe alleges Sheridan disparaged his performance with the college, citing the negative evaluations Monroe received from students. The committee declined to vote for either Monroe’s continuation or renewal with the college, according to the complaint.

The school disputes this allegation in its response.

According to Monroe, Sheridan submitted a report after the vote, which received support from the vice president of Academic Affairs, based on the evaluations urging Monroe’s termination. The complaint states that the actions were based solely on Sheridan’s negative assessment and student evaluations, which contradicted a classroom review organized by Monroe after the meeting, in which three associate chairs issued “glowing” reviews of his work. The college disputes this allegation in its response.

Monroe then filed a grievance with the Elected Representatives of the College, a greivence committee—which was incorrectly identified in his complaint as the External Review Committee—in fall 2010, which he alleges responded with a Jan. 14, 2011, statement that the Film and Video Department did not abide by its stated procedures for evaluating Monroe’s performance.

According to the complaint, the ERC said in its statement that a low student course evaluation percentage placed great emphasis on the evaluations of a relatively small student sampling. The school denies this allegation in its response.

The grievance allowed then-President and CEO Warrick Carter to be the final arbiter, and Carter reversed Monroe’s termination.

During Monroe’s sixth year with the college, he was once again evaluated for tenure and the department and its Dean voted “overwhelmingly in favor.” Interim Provost Louise Love dissented, moving the final decision to grant Monroe tenure back to Carter, but he did not make a decision before his August 2013 retirement.

Following Carter’s retirement, current President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim was appointed and denied Monroe tenure within the first 30 days of his presidency.

Monroe filed a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Feb. 7, 2014, and received a Notice of a Right to Sue on May 12, 2017. The EEOC found no reasonable cause to believe discrimination had occurred based on the complaint.

Columbia’s Sept. 26 filing sought to dismiss three of the complaint’s six counts and reserved the right for future filings.

Columbia claims in court documents that Monroe’s tenure status was decided by the school on March 18, 2013, which is 326 days prior to his Feb. 13, 2014 EEOC filing. The statutory requirement for filing with the EEOC is 300 days from the time the discrimination took place.

 The News Office responded to interview requests with Vice President of Human Resources Norma De Jesus with a Sept. 29 emailed statement to The Chronicle.

“The college takes allegations of discrimination very seriously and investigates every complaint pursuant to its Anti Discrimination and Harassment Policy,” the statement said. “The college does not comment on pending litigation. The college believes this case is without merit and intends to defend it vigorously.”

Update 10/23/2017 at 12:30 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated Monroe received a Notice of a Right to Sue from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on May 12, 2014. The notice was issued May 12, 2017. The Chronicle regrets this error. 

Update 10/24/2017 at 10:00 a.m.: A detail that no reasonable cause for discrimination was found by the EEOC in Monroe’s Feb. 7, 2014 complaint, was added.