Did the UO fire a professor for alleging racism?
words By Camilla Mortensen • photo by Todd Cooper
Professor Paula Rogers thought she had her dream job — a tenure-track position in Japanese linguistics at the UO. With a low teaching load and lots of time for research in her field, it was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a budding scholar.
Half-American and half-Japanese, Rogers grew up in Japan fluent in English and Japanese. She did her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, and before she even finished her dissertation she got the job in the UO’s East Asian Languages and Literatures department (EALL). But a couple of years after she was hired, she began to wonder if being half-Japanese in addition to her research on non-Japanese languages was actually a problem for other faculty members.
Rogers filed a grievance alleging racism on the part of another faculty member, and she says it cost her the job in 2005. Now a professor in Taiwan, far from her husband and home in Eugene, she has filed a $500,000 lawsuit in state and federal courts alleging racism and retaliation by the UO.
Defendants at the UO declined to comment, but the UO denied the allegations in court documents. After defeating a UO motion to dismiss the case on summary judgment and winning a state agency finding of job retaliation, Rogers is scheduled to have her day in court this August. The case offers a rare window into the messy, high-stakes world of racial and tenure politics in the ivory tower.
Tenure (or not)
When Rogers was hired by the UO, she was what is called in academe ABD — all but dissertation. She had completed all her courses, but she hadn’t actually completed her degree. These days in a very competitive university job market — the Chronicle of Higher Education says nearly every humanities field has “hundreds of applications from qualified candidates for every tenure-track position”— just getting a job is almost impossible. Getting a job when you haven’t finished your degree is doubly impressive. “It’s not common,” says Rogers. “It’s basically not heard of nowadays.”
Rogers was hired as an acting assistant professor in 2001 with a one-year contract that would change to a tenure-track job once she finished her Ph.D. She finished her dissertation while teaching at the UO, and in 2002, doctorate in hand, she was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor in EALL.
Tenure at universities is designed to protect scholars and allow them to do their research without being restricted by university politics. In her case, what Rogers wanted to do was publish the grammar of an endangered language. She worked with two indigenous tribes in Taiwan — the Saaroa and the Kavalan — recording and documenting the last speakers of these languages.
The American Association of University Professors says tenure is “essential for the protection of academic freedom.” Once a faculty member has proven she has the scholarship, service and teaching skills to warrant remaining at the university, and after a lengthy probationary period — which takes about seven years — she is normally awarded tenure and protected from being fired. The exceptions to being fired are in extraordinary circumstances such as plagiarism of scholarship, sexual harassment, loss of funding or loss of a department. Out of almost 300,000 tenured faculty members in the U.S., the Chronicle estimates that only about 50 a year lose tenure.
For a young academic, being denied tenure can be the kiss of death for a career. The Chronicle cites instances of faculty who wind up in the street with clothes in a garbage bag and nowhere to go, or who turn to “menial labor for hourly wages.”
But Rogers says she had no reason to think she wouldn’t get tenure, let alone that she would be let go several years before she was even up for tenure. According to the “notice of substantial evidence determination” by the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), Roger’s tenure-track position involved a three-year contact, like most tenure positions. After that she would be given a third year mid-term review to assess whether her productivity and performance would continue at the same level. Passing the review she would get another three-year contract with “a strong likelihood the faculty member will be awarded tenure at the end of the fifth or sixth year of employment.”
Rogers says the third year review “is not supposed to be an inquisition.” And indeed, with a record that included journal publications, a book translation, heading the Japanese languages sector in the department and being awarded $70,000 in grants for her research from places like the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian, as well as an appearance on the Oregon Humanities Center’s UO Today television show, Rogers appeared to be the epitome of the up-and-coming young scholar. But instead of the expected three-year renewal that would lead to tenure, Rogers says she was given a one-year non-renewing contract, putting an end to her tenure hopes. According the complaint she has filed with state and federal courts, “another coworker, who is pure Japanese and had not filed a grievance, got a three-year contract renewal despite a weaker resume.”
So what happened?
In February 2005 Rogers filed complaints with the Oregon Department of Administrative Services. She filed a tort claim notice against professors Maram Epstein, Noriko Fujii and Majorie Woollacott. She also filed a discrimination grievance with Joe Stone, UO Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, but according to court documents filed by Rogers, “Stone stated that plaintiff’s grievance was unfounded.” The UO denies that statement in their response to Roger’s complaint.
Rogers’ grievance alleged that, among other things, fellow faculty in her department gave her too many duties for a junior faculty member and applied some rules only to her and not to anyone else in the department. Most departments try to keep junior faculty from taking on too many duties in order to keep them focused on the publishing and research needed to get tenure, according to Rogers. That’s not what happened to her in EALL, Rogers said. She says her research on non-Japanese endangered indigenous languages was restricted, and she was told that that the research was not pertinent to her position. She says that when she was hired, the department knew what research she was doing — she was in the field at the time — and she was never told it would not count for tenure, nor was that a restriction in the job description.
She says she was discriminated against by other faculty because she was not pure Japanese. Rogers is of mixed race with an American father — a French and Spanish teacher who went to Japan in 1946 to teach writing classes to American soldiers. He met Rogers’ mother, a Japanese woman who taught French, over their mutual interest in languages.
Racism by Japanese people against half-Japanese may sound odd to Americans, but a 2005 U.N. Commission on Human Rights report on racism and discrimination by Doudou Diène concluded that there is “deep and profound” racism in Japan and not enough recognition by the government of the problem.
According to Yoshio Sugimoto’s 2002 book, An Introduction to Japanese Society, “In everyday life, racism and ethnocentrism still remain strong in many sections of the community and the establishment.” Sugimoto writes that many Japanese “believe that ‘Japaneseness’ has superior qualities and should not be contaminated.”
A witness not named in the court document alleged that professor Noriko Fujii often used the Japanese word tsukusu when criticizing Rogers. According to Rogers, tsukusu means “to expend oneself,” and she says that the implication was that as a half-Japanese, Rogers didn’t know how to sacrifice herself in service to others. The witness also alleged that Fujii often negatively compared Rogers to Tetsuo Harada, another EALL professor who is a Japanese national.
The court documents say that sometime before the April 2005 meeting to discuss Rogers’ third-year review, Fujii, Epstein, and Woollacott learned about the grievances. In the UO’s response to the complaint, it admits the professors did learn about the grievances, but throughout the document, the UO and the defendants “deny the balance” of Rogers’ allegations.
The four review committee members voted 3-1 in favor of giving Rogers the tenure-track three-year contract. Fujii, who was one of the review committee members, was the sole no vote. The EALL faculty then voted on the review based on the third-year mid-term review committee’s judgment, and they voted 3-2 in favor of giving Rogers the three-year contract. Fujii and Epstein were the votes against contract renewal.
Another unnamed witness quoted in the court documents alleged that during the April 25, 2005, meeting “Fujii and Epstein spent a great deal of time talking about Complainant’s (Rogers) grievance and how much time and effort it had cost them … They spoke maliciously and were visibly upset.”
Although the review committee and EALL faculty members voted for the standard three-year contract renewal, the department head, Marjorie Woollacott, went against these results and recommended the one-year contract, according to the BOLI substantial evidence determination.
According to the BOLI document, the rationale given by the UO for giving the one-year contract was concern over the amount of research Rogers was able to publish in the previous three-year period. Rogers had quite a few things accepted for publication, but not all were in print yet, and according to the BOLI document the EALL offered the one-year contract based on what was actually in print. However the document also said that the previous year’s review of Rogers’ work by department head Woollacott said that Rogers’ “research productivity, with one book translated, a paper in a peer-reviewed series and two others ‘to appear’ (one journal article and one chapter in a peer-reviewed edited volume) appears to be on track for tenure and promotion.”
Retaliation and Settlement
This is not the first time the UO has had a lawsuit filed against it over a tenure case, or the dismissal of a faculty or staff member. In 2001, UO women’s basketball coach Jody Runge settled with the UO for $520,000 after resigning. Eight members of her team had complained about her, and according to news sources, then-athletic director Bill Moos hired a law firm to evaluate Runge and her program. The firm uncovered 31 minor NCAA violations. Twice before the investigation, Runge had threatened to sue for gender discrimination.
In 2005 the UO settled for $375,000 after former assistant track and field coach Sally Harmon also filed suit for gender discrimination. The UO admitted no wrongdoing in the case.
The UO settled with current Oregon Toxics Alliance Executive Director Lisa Arkin in 2000 for $500,000 after Arkin, then a dance professor, sued the UO for violating her civil rights by denying tenure to her because she took two maternity leaves during her tenure preparation period. Arkin at the time called the settlement, which called for her to be given tenure but resign her position, a “difficult decision … particularly after the Ninth Circuit Court had determined my case had merit,” but said she had to consider the toll it took on her family. The UO admitted no wrongdoing in this case as well.
The UO settled with former head of Planning, Public Policy and Management Jean Stockard also for $500,000 in 2007. Stockard said she was forced to resign after whistle blowing on a program that was unfairly charging foreign scholars for services they didn’t get.
Finally, a 2002 settlement in a lawsuit filed by Joe Wade, former director of the Office of Academic Advising and Student Services, was for more than $500,000 and called for the creation of “the position of Vice Provost for Institutional Diversity or similar title for a minimum of five (5) years.” Wade, an African-American, alleged racial discrimination when his contract was not renewed in 1999.
In the BOLI review of Rogers’ case, the agency determined that there was no substantial evidence of racism. Fujii’s alleged use of the word tsukusu and comparisons to a Japanese national was insufficient evidence, nor did BOLI find evidence of disciplinary action against Rogers for whistle blowing. However, BOLI did find there was substantial evidence for retaliation against Rogers for filing a grievance alleging discrimination.
EW contacted Fujji, Epstein, Stone, Woollacott and Wendy Larson for comment on Rogers’ case and did not receive a reply except from Epstein, who responded that she had been advised by state legal counsel not to talk to anyone about the case. UO media relations referred EW to Tony Green, director of communications and policy at the Oregon Department of Justice, who said he was also unable to comment while the lawsuit was in progress. The court document Green was able to provide shows that the UO denies each of Rogers’ allegations, argues that for several of the claims the UO and the professors named are not “proper defendants,” and argues that Rogers is not entitled for damages under Oregon’s Title VII anti-discrimination law. The UO asked the case to be dismissed.
The UO filed a motion for summary judgment — asking that the case not go to trial. This was denied by Judge Thomas Coffin in U.S. District Court last month. The case is set for trial in August 2009. Rogers, meanwhile continues her teaching career in Taiwan, thousands of miles away from her husband and life in Eugene.