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The GW Hatchet

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Alum alleges retaliation from University for protesting age discrimination

A former student is alleging that GW perpetuates a culture where older, tenured professors “bully” non-tenured research and clinical faculty.

The three-page complaint filed with the Department of Education last summer alleged that GW retaliated against the student after the student accused the University of age discrimination. The student also claims that GW ignored complaints filed in June 2018 about two deans and University President Thomas LeBlanc.

The student, whose name was redacted from the documents, said GW did not provide them a computer or office space while studying and teaching from 2014 to February 2018, according to documents obtained by The Hatchet through the Freedom of Information Act late last month.

“I had no office, no computer, no support; taught thousands of students; was protected by the union until I was ‘promoted’; and, was then summarily discarded,” the student said in the complaint.

The complainant is asking for GW to award them their doctorate. The complaint did not specify whether GW retaliated against the student by withholding their doctorate.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights notified GW about the investigation on Jan. 17 and the University will cooperate with the investigation.

“OCR is obligated to investigate individual complaints within OCR’s jurisdiction, and of course, a complaint represents only the complainant’s perspective,” Csellar said in an email.

She declined to say how the University will respond to the student’s request to receive their doctorate or whether officials will institute any policy changes in light of the complaint. Csellar also declined to comment on how officials responded to the student’s complaint filed in June 2018.

Csellar did not say which officials are involved with the investigation and declined to name the two deans whose names were redacted in the complaint. The OCR also redacted the name of the specific school in which the student studied, descriptions of specific instances of  University retaliation and details about how the student protested the University’s alleged age discrimination.

A history of discrimination suits
The OCR launched an investigation into the student’s complaint Jan. 17 that will determine whether GW violated the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, which outlaws age-based discrimination, including retaliation for protesting age discrimination at institutions that receive federal funding.

When the Department of Education listed the complaint on their website in February, officials said they were “confident” they did not act “inappropriately” toward the complainant. Officials declined to say whether they would institute any policy changes in light of the complaint.

Former GW staff members have also filed lawsuits alleging age discrimination in recent years.

Customer service staffer Mona Bernard sued the University for racial and age discrimination after the University passed her over for a job promotion in 2013. Bernard said GW hired a younger white woman who was less qualified for the position than she.

GW Police Department officer Todd Ladson sued GW in 2014 for racial and age discrimination after GW fired him for alleged sexual harassment. A federal judge dismissed the case in 2016, citing that Ladson provided insufficient evidence that GW terminated him because of racial or age discrimination.

Electrician Henry Darden sued GW for disability and age discrimination in 2016 after his supervisors cut down his working hours.

Alleged culture of ‘bullying’
The former student said in the complaint that the University retaliated against them for protesting a culture in which longer-serving professors “bully” non-tenured research and clinical faculty. The complaint does not include specific details about the University’s alleged retaliation.

“The crime I committed was standing up to wrongdoing,” the student said in the complaint.

The student said in the complaint that outgoing Board of Trustees chair Nelson Carbonell published the findings of a months-long review of the faculty climate at GW at a Faculty Senate meeting in March 2014. The student said Carbonell told the Faculty Senate that newer and non-tenured faculty felt they “lacked a voice” in their schools and departments.

“We have heard over and over again that research and clinical faculty feel like second-class citizens,” Carbonell said at the 2014 meeting.

The student said that the University’s perpetuation of a “wrongdoing” contributes to a widespread problem of dishonesty on college campuses and mitigates opportunities for people in academia to make society a “more compassionate and fair place.”

“A lack of accountability, responsibility and integrity has come to the University campus,” the student said in the complaint. “GW is not immune.”

Investigating discrimination
Age discrimination experts said universities should institute protocols for how to properly investigate age discrimination complaints and prevent retaliation against complainants.

Carolyn Wheeler, a senior counsel with the D.C.-based law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, LLP, said a university should interview witnesses to determine if the school acted in an “inappropriate” manner toward a complainant and conduct investigations to determine whether discrimination occurred.

Wheeler said universities tend to take retaliation complaints “pretty seriously” because retaliatory behavior is less difficult to prove than latent discrimination.

“The causal connection between protective conduct and then making a complaint and subsequent adverse actions is often pretty obvious,” Wheeler said.

Kellee Kruse, a principal at the D.C.-based law firm Employment Law Group, said universities should recruit a neutral third party who is not associated with the University to investigate whether discrimination occurred.

“It’s really important for universities, really like any employer or any organization to have protocols in place to investigate and respond to a complaint alleging any kind of discrimination or retaliation,” Kruse said.

She said universities should institute mandatory discrimination training for all University staff and offer anonymity to complainants to prevent retaliation. She said universities should extend protection against retaliation to all complainants, regardless of whether an investigation revealed discrimination.

“Even if the university or college ultimately does not find discrimination, the complaining party – whether it’s a student or a staff member – should be protected from retaliation,” Kruse said.

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