Investigating diversity and inclusion at RIT

Published July 5, 2016 with Open Mic Rochester.

Diversity may be an ideal that the Rochester Institute of Technology strives for, but three lawsuits filed against RIT by former employees show a different climate. Four black women are alleging discrimination in the workplace. The suits describe hostile work environment and various discriminatory and unfair practices.

“I have interviewed several African American professors that were denied tenure at RIT,” Prathima Reddy said. Reddy is representing all three plaintiffs through her law organization, The Reddy Law Group, based in Buffalo. She said she’s worked extensively on similar suits. “There seems to be a consensus among minority professors that RIT will hire minority professors to have bragging rights, but after a time they are denied tenure.”

Due to its size and reputation, Bobby Colon, RIT’s General Counsel for the Office of Legal Affairs, said it’s not unusual for the university to be involved in these kinds of lawsuits. New York State is an employ-at-will state and employers don’t have to give employees a reason for their termination. This may cause some employees to believe their race or gender was a factor.

As a point of comparison with other universities, according to numbers from 2014 stated in the 2015 Annual Diversity Report by University of Rochester’s President Joel Seligman, underrepresented minority enrollment at the university was at 9.6 percent. Comparatively, according to numbers provided by Forbes, 10.51 percent of the student population at Hobart and William Smith colleges are Native American, African American or Latin American. According to these numbers, RIT has a more diverse student population than other colleges in the area.

Full-time faculty and staff are just behind, with 12.5 percent of the population identifying as Native American/Alaskan Native, Hispanic/Latin American and Black/African American, according to numbers provided by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on campus. We do not know how many of these individuals are tenured or tenure track faculty, or how many minority faculty and staff have been promoted in their time at RIT.

Of course statistics don’t paint a complete picture and students frequently complain of racist and prejudiced occurences- including racist Yik Yaks, a swastika being painted on a school building and students feeling they were being graded unfairly because of their skin tones.

And RIT’s President William Destler said that he has seen lawsuits regarding discrimination of gender and ethnicity plenty of times throughout his tenure at the campus- though they’ve never had one come out unfavorably for RIT.

Typically the university attempts to handle a problem before it reaches the point of legal action.

“RIT has a specific policy,” said Judy Bender, Assistant Vice President for HR. “It’s C6.0. If any concerns come to Human Resources it’s investigated. We talk to the person, gather data, talk to witnesses if there are any, and then make a determination.”  The department investigates all claims of mistreatment on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation and is working to develop training to address unconscious bias among faculty and staff. Already, all faculty and staff go through diversity training.

“We have more programs in place now than we did in the past,” said Bender.

Each of the lawsuits is explored below in detail. All three lawsuits are brought by Black women who were former employees of RIT. All of the cases are represented by the Reddy Law Firm in Buffalo.

Ginger Jones and Essie Rankin vs. RIT and Chris Denninger

Ginger Jones was employed as a dispatch officer with RIT’s Public Safety Department beginning in Feb 2006. She said she was met almost immediately with inappropriate behavior at the hands of her superiors. On her first day, her Supervisor Jim Pressey asked her if anyone had shown her where to take out the trash.

“How does a dispatcher equate with taking out the trash?” Jones asked in an interview. “After a few days I decided to go forward and voice my feelings about that complaint to Chris Denninger (director of Public Safety). I had a meeting with Denninger and he said that he was raised in a household where women were not expected to taking out the trash so he said he understood how I could be offended by that, but he didn’t seem to understand the racial implications.”

This interaction was the start of a chain of events that occurred until Jones was fired in August of 2015. She stated she often heard officers refer to sexual assault victims as “bitches, sluts, and whores” and say they deserved the assault or was lying. Jones said she even witnessed cameras in the dispatch room being used to view attractive women, people changing in cars or people making out on campus.

“I hope that no other person will have to experience what I experienced” – Rankin

Past this, she said she also saw other racist incidents, including inappropriate videos being played in the dispatch room, sometimes of black men being beaten by cops. Additionally, she claimed the officers used racial slurs, stating she heard an officer refer to an Asian student as a “slanty-eyed gook.” And at an event held by a black fraternity on campus, she overheard two officers saying, “They don’t need to be here, they need to just leave, why in the hell have them back here when they don’t know how to act? Get your pepper spray and Tasers ready.”

In addition to these complaints, Jones also said that she was allowed to work overtime, though every other officer was. And she was also not given access to the dispatch room, even though all other employees had access. She said there were times when her supervisors would shut the door and laugh at her attempts to enter.

When she complained about these things to her supervisors, she was largely met with silence, she said. After one complaint with HR all of Public Safety was mandated to attend a diversity training seminar, but Jones said that it had little result.

Jones and Essie Rankin, another Black female public safety officer, met after a particularly heated staff meeting. Rankin ran to the bathroom in tears and Jones went to check on her. It was there that the two realized that even though they worked different shifts, they were sharing similar experiences.

Rankin was hired in 2006, also as a dispatcher. She witnessed the offensive videos and was denied overtime as well as Jones. Pressey, a supervisor with Public Safety at the time, frequently locked her out of the dispatch room, which she was not given access to for a number of years. She also experienced racist and sexist comments. For example, Rankin said that another officer told her that “Obama should be hung.”

When she was in the dispatch room, she also noticed the misuse of cameras to look at women on campus or to view porn. When she reported an instance of an individual watching porn in the dispatch room to Denninger, she was met with indifference, she said.

“He said ‘RIT is a very liberal institution. Was it kiddie porn?’” Rankin said. “How dare they think that that it’s okay to be sitting in a room where you’re supposed to be doing your job and they are watching porn. ‘If RIT had a problem, they would block it on their computer,’ he said.”

Rankin, like Jones, complained to Denninger and the HR department several times to no avail. HR was unable to comment on the case because it is still moving through the legal system.

In August of 2015, Rankin and Jones were terminated from their positions. According to the court document, “upon information and belief, no other employee was discharged.” At this point in time, Rankin and Jones had already filed the lawsuit against RIT and Denninger for the creation of an unabated hostile environment and discrimination.

Denninger did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article.

According to Reddy, Jones and Rankin’s attorney, RIT has stated that the women were terminated due to a downsizing of the department. However, in a Reporter article from February of 2015, Denninger stated that the Public Safety department would be growing soon to accommodate a new firearm policy for the university.

“I think it goes a long way to say that the two women who were employed there were treated wrongfully,” said Reddy, Jones and Rankin’s attorney with The Reddy Law. “So, what we’re really focusing on is the hostile work environment, and it’s very brazen of the officers to not only allow the behavior but take part in it. Really the issue is that no one at RIT took the steps to remedy the situation, particularly because the director’s involved.”

“I hope that no other person will have to experience what I experienced,” Rankin said with tears. “Every time I think about others in the business who didn’t have the capacity to do what we had to do… I just hope that never happens again.”

Nzola DeMagalhaes vs. RIT

Nzola DeMagalhaes was hired as an Assistant Professor in Feb 2010 with the College of Engineering. She was hired on tenure track and was recruited while living in California by RIT’s diversity hiring committee.

During her tour, before accepting the position, she said she was shown a laboratory that would be available for her research. Her contract included an equipment budget up to $100,000. She was given a list of expectations to obtain tenure, which included teaching, competency in research and completion of professional service activities.

In her first weeks at RIT, DeMagalhaes said she was made uncomfortable by her direct supervisor, Steve Weinstein, chair of the department. She said he would frequently sit next to her rather than across the table from her in meetings and that he would make inappropriate contact with her, such as rubbing her shoulders. When she requested the presence of others or that he keep his door open, Weinstein would get upset, according to court documents.

Moreover, DeMagalhaes found that she did not have the lab that was originally promised to her. She would never gain access to the lab that she was shown on her visit, but a male employee hired after her did. The court documents do not state whether this lab was part of her contract or if she was just promised it on her tour. Instead, after approximately a year of waiting, DeMagalhaes had to do her work from a lab in the Rochester General Hospital. Once she finally secured the lab, she continued to struggle, unable to obtain the supplies she needed.  She said purchase-order forms would get stuck in the approval process, or she would find that she was given far less money than originally stated in her contract.

In May of 2010 she requested to teach the following fall, but was told by Weinstein that she could not teach until the 2011-2012 academic year, and even then it would only be co-teaching. The following year, she was told RIT’s conversion from quarters to semesters would keep her from teaching again.

By the time she began to get the supplies necessary for her research, DeMagalhaes had only four months to complete her research. This was an insufficient amount of time, she said. Despite the fact that she said she had complained to Weinstein, Chance Glenn, associate dean of Graduate studies, Dean Harvey Palmer and Jeremy Haefner, provost and associate vice president of academic affairs, she believes she was not given the tools to allow her to adequately do her job here at RIT and then wrongfully punished for not being able to do so.

DeMagalhaes was terminated on June 1, 2012, 29 days before the official termination date HR gave her. She later filed a lawsuit for employment discrimination with The Reddy Law Group.

HR was unable to discuss this case as it is currently pending in the court system. DeMagalhaes was unable to comment on her case at the time of print due to its status in the court system. Weinstein was also unable to comment, but said, “it’s unfortunate when communication breaks down.”

He added that he enjoys a very diverse team in his department and that he is proud of their work.

“Our department has more women than men in professor roles,” Weinstein said. “It’s important to have a diverse faculty. You need to have diverse people for students to connect with, and that’s the biggest reason to have a diverse group.”

Sharon Edwards vs. RIT and Dr. Donald Boyd

Sharon Edwards began working at RIT in May of 2003. She originally started as the Operations Coordinator in the Incubator Building, now known as Venture Creations, on campus. She worked closely with Donald Boyd, the former Vice President for Research.

“She just had to have everything go her way.” – Dr. Donald Boyd (on Edwards)

Edwards said that she’d always received glowing reviews from her supervisors until 2006, when the same supervisor, Lyn Kelly, suggested that Edwards should be fired. Around this same time, Edwards expressed dissatisfaction that she had not professionally grown in her years at Venture Creations.

In 2007, Edwards received a performance appraisal that was much lower than normal. This was the last performance appraisal she would receive for several years according to her, which is against RIT’s policy.

Until 2012 when she was terminated, Edwards stated in the court documents that she had been passed over for several positions that she felt she qualified for. In one instance, Edwards said that Boyd had said, “It would be difficult to find a qualified professional AALANA female” for his division.

Edwards complained to Alfreda Brown, former interim chief diversity officer; Destler;  the HR department, and she filed several motions with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The complaints allowed her change in title to finally be enforced. She had been promised a change in title from Operations Coordinator to Operations Manager. However, she still felt that she did not get the growth opportunities she deserved.

Edwards was also unable to comment on her case at the time due to legal proceedings. Boyd, Edwards’ supervisor, remembered Edwards and her other supervisor, Jerry Mahone, fighting frequently. “She just had to have everything go her way,” he said.

When asked further about the accusations from Edwards, Boyd declined to comment.

HR declined to comment on the case as it is still moving through the court system.

“We are uncovering a pattern and practice of disadvantaging minorities at RIT despite leadership at RIT claiming a commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Reddy said. “These lawsuits indicate a widespread problem amongst various departments of the university.”

Each of these cases is at different stages in the legal process. Reddy, the attorney representing these women, explained that we may not expect judgements on the cases for months or even years.“My greater hope is that RIT as an institution changes as a whole,” Reddy said. “You should have a diverse and inclusive student population but more importantly a diverse professional staff.”

“We’ve never had a real finding, but it does raise questions about our processes,” Destler said. “These issues are interrelated, and we need to create an area of comfort.”

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