Jewish professors sue Wheelock College, claim discrimination
By Evan Lips | September 15, 2016, 17:55 EST
BOSTON — A pair of Jewish Wheelock College professors have taken the school and its recently retired president to federal court, alleging in an explosive lawsuit filed Thursday that they were subjected to a host of anti-Semitic discrimination measures.
Professors Gail Dines and Eric Silverman in their dual complaints allege that Wheelock’s president, Jackie Jenkins-Scott, worked with other administrators to smear their reputations, beginning when Dines and Silverman apparently dared to question why they were not included in a 2014 school-sponsored event dubbed “The Black-Jew Dialogues,” a diversity and cultural awareness event.
“As President Jenkins-Scott knew from reviewing his tenure and promotion cases, Dr. Silverman is the only faculty member with a record of peer-reviewed, scholarly publications on Judaism, yet he had not been approached,” the complaint states.
Jenkins-Scott could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit additionally references a December 2013 instance in which 22 faculty members along with Dines and Silverman signed a letter expressing concern over the fact that average SAT scores for incoming freshman had plummeted during her time as president, a lowering of standards they claimed might be responsible for a plunge in the freshmen student retention rate to 63 percent.
An African-American faculty member proceeded claim the letter “expressed an unfair bias against African-American applicants and students” and called on Jenkins-Scott, who is also African-American, to “appoint an external diversity consultant to address racial bias issues and what they perceived as racial tension on campus.”
Dines, a tenured professor of sociology and women’s studies professor and chairwoman of American studies at Wheelock since 1986, “supported the idea of seeking an external diversity consultant to assist with campus-wide diversity conversations,” her complaint states.
A year later, when the school was planning to hold The Black-Jew Dialogues, Dines claims she was approached by Silverman, who questioned why they were being excluded. Dines and Silverman proceeded to pen a letter in September 2014 along with other Jewish faculty members to Jenkins-Scott, her senior administrators and a group calling itself the “Diversity Council.”
The professors alleged that Jewish culture and heritage was being “underrepresented” on campus under Jenkins-Scott. The lawsuit alleges that an administrator later “berated Dr. Silverman in the meeting for allegedly upsetting the few students that sat on the Diversity Council as well as other students who had seen the September 22, 2014 letter.”
The professors also allege in the complaint that administrators refused to disclose details about what had upset the students.
“When President Jenkins-Scott and other senior administrators refused to give any serious response to the letter, Drs. Dines and Silverman took this as evidence that the College did not wish to acknowledge or redress the marginalization of Jewish voices on campus,” the lawsuit claims.
The professors subsequently claim that their efforts to begin a dialogue on Judaism on campus went ignored. The lawsuit cites the fact that the letter issued by the African-American professor garnered immediate attention including “the swift appointment of an external diversity consultant.”
“The College made that letter an institutional priority,” the lawsuit states.
Silverman also pointed out in his complaint that the African-American professor who wrote the letter was later promoted to a dean’s post “without having the relevant experience” over himself, “who was more qualified and had a higher academic rank.”
In December 2014, according to the complaint, Jewish faculty members held a meeting with administrators. Dines and Silverman allege that Jenkins-Scott “refused to acknowledge these concerns as legitimate and instead became defensive and accusatory.”
“She verbally attacked the Jewish faculty attending and interrogated all of them to find out who among them had sent a letter to the College’s trustees complaining about a hostile working environment and other examples of President Jenkins-Scott’s mismanagement of the College,” the suit claims.
Dines claims that the saga escalated in 2015, culminating in her being informed by administrators that several students complained over her alleged use of the n-word during her class on sociology of minorities. Dines pointed out that her course involved a text by Richard Wright titled “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch,” in which the author uses the slur to describe his personal experiences.
Dines noted that while none of the students in the class corroborated the allegation in their final performance reviews, the college proceeded to launch an external investigation. Silverman meanwhile was also accused of having used the n-word slur in class. Like Dines, Silverman alleges that administrators were unable to pinpoint the source or nature of the complaint. Like Dines, Silverman was also subjected to an external investigation.
Dines and Silverman claim that it was Jenkins-Scott who was pushing to hire an external investigator, against the advice of Wheelock’s own attorney. In June of 2015, the school held an all-campus forum to discuss the results of an anonymous campus racial climate questionnaire.
Jewish faculty members, according to the complaint, were singled out.
“These statements were objectively untrue and highly incendiary, but presented as fact,” the lawsuit states. “They could have no other result than to portray Jewish faculty as guilty of racism and encourage further prejudice against Drs. Silverman and Dines.”
A diversity report posted to the school’s website, the lawsuit claims, “contained several statements that belittled Dr. Dines’ experiences of isolation and victimization as a Jewish person, and reassured students and staff that she was part of a ‘small minority.’”
“The Diversity Report also contains the following statements that criticized Dr. Dines and her colleagues for displaying ‘white fragility’ rather than a reasonable degree of self-protection when they expressed concern about the administration’s discrimination and retaliation against them,” the lawsuit adds.
The lawsuit also describes portions of the diversity report as “Owellian in their chilling conviction that any criticism” of Jenkins-Scott or the outside agency contracted to produce the report “by definition proves the speaker is hostile to diversity and African Americans, and requires re-education.”
The professors contend in their complaint that claims of racial bias were created “to help insulate President Jenkins-Scott from criticisms of her leadership, which were intensifying because the College’s finances, enrollment and faculty morale were all suffering.”
“Not only were Jewish people put on President Jenkins-Scott’s ‘enemies list’ and painted as racists, as happened to Drs. Dines and Silverman, but other faculty members were also treated as untrustworthy.”
This past February, after a Boston Globe report disclosed the nature of the complaints the professors submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Dines alleges that students proceeded to hold protests in her classroom. Dines also alleges that several academic deans proceeded to ignore her requests to hold a meeting with the student protesters.
“Because the Co-Deans refused to inform students of Dr. Dines’ request for a meeting, the students continued to tweet that ‘Gail Dines is not interested in having a meeting with students’ using the hashtag #WheeStandTogether,” the lawsuit claims.
— Sarah Smith (@SarLSmith) February 26, 2016
The lawsuit points out that the school’s official Twitter account retweeted the following message: “#WheelockCollege students use the hashtag #WheeStandTogether to share your stories and let your voices be heard.” That hashtag was used to post negative, false comments about Drs. Dines and Silverman.
— Wheelock Call It Out (@WheelCallItOut) February 23, 2016
Later that month, the college’s marketing project manager posted a blog on the website JewSchool.com accusing Dines and Silverman of “using claims of anti-Semitism as cover for reports of racism.”
In March, Jenkins-Scott sent Dines and Silverman formal letters “informing them that she was commissioning a supposedly ‘independent fact-finder to review complaints’ alleged to have come from students about their racist teaching,” with Jenkins-Scott subsequently hiring an outside law firm to investigate whether the two professors had engaged in racism.
Dines and Silverman claim in the lawsuit that the final report issued by the law firm contracted by Jenkins-Scott “contains multiple indicators of unfairness and procedural oddness that belie its retaliatory purpose.”
The lawsuit also references a March 1 campus-wide meeting in which Jenkins-Scott allegedly “stated to all attendees ‘[t]he narrative has been hijacked and we have an opportunity to take back the narrative.’”
Lastly, the lawsuit notes that Jenkins-Scott left Wheelock on June 30.
“Her exit package, agreed by the Board, provided for a year’s full pay, approximately $500,000, with no responsibility to do or produce anything for the College,” the complaint states.
When the Boston Globe first reported on the professors’ complaints in February, Wheelock officials responded with a prepared statement, saying the school is committed to “committed to providing a diverse workplace free of discrimination” and added that they dispute the allegations.
“Although Wheelock does not comment on the particulars of personnel disputes or litigation, it disagrees strongly with the allegations made in the actions recently filed against the college,” Marta Rosa, senior executive director of the department of governmental and external affairs and chief diversity officer, told the Globe in the statement.
Jenkins-Scott, according to the school’s website, was succeeded by David Chard, a former dean at Southern Methodist University.
On Thursday Chard told the NewBostonPost he was not aware of the saga until he took the job.
“My efforts since arriving has been centered on refocusing the college on what it has to do to move forward and not to rehash or repave what’s happened in the past,” he said.
Chard added that Dines and Silverman are still faculty members and that he offered them paid leaves of absence for the 2015-2016 school year, which both have accepted. Dines and Silverman will not be teaching, he noted, but will still be focusing on various research initiatives.
“I made that offer in order to try to allow the college to settle down a little and heal itself,” he added.
He described the first few weeks of the new school year as “fantastic” but stressed that students are still focused on activism. Chard also said the presidential transition has resulted in a significant loss of faculty and administrators.
Chard was hesitant to offer his opinion on whether Dines and Silverman will be welcomed back to Wheelock with open arms by the rest of the faculty and students.
“You know, I don’t know if I can answer that — and it’s not that I don’t want to,” Chard said. “They are tenured faculty colleagues. I don’t know how the lawsuit will play out and I wasn’t here to see what allegedly happened.
“I’d like to believe that our faculty during this process will be a strong team and that we’ll be most interested in the future of our students. At the end of this process we’ll assess where we are. There is a great deal of respect for their work.”
Read Gail Dines’ lawsuit:
Read Eric Silverman’s lawsuit: