In the Spotlight

News & Features

"I think that people are pained"
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
April 29, 2002

On a recent Friday night, the Jewish Student Association at St. Cloud State University drew three dozen people to the basement of the student center with a promise of Israeli folk dancing lessons. The JSA is one of dozens of cultural groups at the school. There's a Pakistani Students Association, a Council of African American Students, and a Japanese Tea Ceremony Club.

Israeli folk dancing
Groups like the Jewish Student Association regularly hold cultural events on campus.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

As the stereo pumps out songs from another part of the world, students and faculty of all colors clap and laugh and whirl in a giant circle. This scene seems a world away, but it's just a short walk from the St. Cloud State history department, where charges of anti-Semitism have given the school a much different reputation on diversity issues.

Junior Robbi Hoy is a student in the history department, though she doesn't imagine she will ever return. She sits with her husband beside her and sifts through a stack of correspondence with various university officials. It chronicles her disappointment.

"I have two young boys, and I will never allow them to go to this university - ever - unless it's cleaned up," Hoy said. "I'm embarrassed. I'm actually thinking about moving out of state because I cannot believe that MnSCU is letting this happen."

Laurinda Stryker and Arie Zmora
History Professor Laurinda Stryker and former professor Arie Zmora have filed a lawsuit that is expected to go to trial in the fall.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Last year Hoy joined three professors in a discrimination lawsuit against MnSCU, St. Cloud State, President Roy Saigo, and others.

Hoy is not Jewish. She organized a rally one year ago to defend professor Laurinda Stryker, who had spoken up about anti-Semitism in the department. She found out soon after that her "A" in Stryker's course had become an "incomplete."

Hoy says Social Science Dean Richard Lewis was holding up her grade. She tried to resolve things on campus. Only when her lawyer raised the matter with the state Attorney General was the grade restored.

"All I said is, 'I want this man to be held accountable for what he's doing.' And no one will do it," Hoy said. "And if they would have done it then, and if they'd have said, 'Robbi, here's what's going on, we're going to reprimand him in this way.' But they didn't do a thing. And if they would have done it there would be no lawsuit as far as I'm concerned."

Becky Rothmeier
The Student Coalition Against Racism mobilizes when member students or professors have been victims of discrimination. Co-chair Becky Rothmeier discusses an on-going case involving a black professor of finance. Listen to her comments.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Indeed, a central point of the other plaintiffs is that Social Science Dean Richard Lewis ran the history department as he saw fit, and higher administrators then did nothing to rein him in. The argument does not necessarily finger the dean as an anti-Semite. But professors inside and outside the lawsuit say he may have protected others who are.

Richard Lewis is eager to point out his record on faculty diversity. In the five years he's been dean, Lewis says he's hired more than two dozen faculty of color, and all but one are still on campus. He says he can't track religious diversity. It's not something he knows unless someone tells him.

Lewis says that even as he faces the first lawsuit of his career, his blood pressure is at an all-time low.

"I believe in the long run that I will be vindicated, as will the university in general," he said. "By that time, of course, the public will not be terribly interested, but I believe that people will become aware that the university and I acted properly."

Richard Lewis
Richard Lewis, Dean of Social Sciences.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

For legal reasons, Lewis won't talk about Robbi Hoy or the two history professors who have sued him. But he insists everything is done by the book in the departments he supervises.

Lewis says he fields complaints of discrimination, and contacts the Affirmative Action Office to get the ball rolling. Despite allegations to the contrary, he supports creating a minor in Holocaust studies. And he says faculty whose contracts are not renewed are let go because the school can find somebody better for their position, not because they're Jewish.

Lewis says it is largely jilted professors who turn discrimination complaints into public relations fiascos. He says faculty should talk out complaints, and learn how to move on when an employment decision doesn't go their way. Instead, he says they often turn quickly to the courts and the media.

"For some faculty members it's loyalty to themselves, their careers, less to the university," Lewis said. "I think there's not always a sense in...that kind of decision on going public, going to the courts, going to a lawyer, 'What impact will this have on the university?'"

Robert Lavenda
Robert Lavenda, Jewish Faculty Association.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Robert Lavenda says he doesn't know "any academics who like hiring lawyers and suing." Lavenda chairs the one-year old Jewish Faculty Association. He is also the tenured chair of the anthropology department. He pins most of the blame on the complaint process.

"I think the level of frustration has been so high with grievances or complaints simply disappearing from sight, of taking so long, of never really getting an answer that makes sense, that seems to fit with the experience the individual has had," Lavenda said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found as much earlier this year, when it released a report saying the Affirmative Action Office suffered a "severe lack of credibility." St. Cloud State invited the EEOC to conduct the study.

"If you just look around, people look different. And we need to be prepared, because putting our head in the sand is just leaving another body part exposed."

- Affirmative Action Officer Laurel Allen

Affirmative Action Officer Laurel Allen is leaving in June. She says EEOC investigators interviewed her for just one hour before writing a report about how she does her job. Allen says everyone who has walked through her door in five years has gotten a frank and sincere hearing. If someone insists on an investigation, she is obligated to pursue it.

That does not mean she can always meet expectations. The office is staffed only by Allen and an administrative assistant. And their mandate is limited - they can only take on cases that meet the legal definition of discrimination. That's something Allen thinks most people don't understand.

Bill Turner
In April, students held a rally for history professor Bill Turner. Listen to Turner's thoughts on where the process goes wrong.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

"I think that people are pained," Allen said, "and I have said this on a number of occasions that there is insensitivity on this campus. Does the insensitivity rise to the level of discrimination and complaint? No, it doesn't. And so the question again to me is, the middle."

The vast majority of cases at St. Cloud State appear to fall in this middle ground. None of the faculty interviewed for this series, many of whom had been at the school for 10 years or more, were aware of any decision that had ever resulted in action by the university against the accused.

Allen's office handled 141 discrimination investigations in the past five years. Twenty were resolved informally. One is still on-going. Allen can personally recall one case that resulted in some form of disciplinary action. That case was filed by a professor against a student.

That leaves 119 affirmative action investigations, or 85 percent, where the Affirmative Action Office does not know what happened.

History bulletin board
The history department has gotten more attention than any other on campus in recent months.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Admittedly, knowing what happened is not Laurel Allen's responsibility. Someone higher up, usually a vice president, decides what action to take. This decision-making arrangement has been criticized by faculty and by the EEOC report. They say it dilutes accountability. And it means the ultimate arbiter of any complaint will be closely tied to the administration - a conflict of interest in the eyes of many complainants.

It also seems to inhibit record-keeping. Minnesota Public Radio formally requested the number of instances in the past five years in which faculty had been disciplined because of affirmative action complaints. The school responded that such data is not known. According to state law, information about disciplinary action against public employees should be a matter of public record.

President Roy Saigo does not think those who complain get a run-around from administrators. Nor, he says, is the system inherently biased against corrective action. But he says a task force is working with the EEOC to restore confidence in the system.

University President Roy Saigo
University President Roy Saigo discusses diversity and progress at St. Cloud State. Listen to his comments.
(Photo courtesy of St. Cloud State University)

"I'm hoping that people who have been hurt in the past will come around," Saigo said, "and that I can put in place procedures that will help them feel more comfortable, and that in a year or two you will find a totally different place."

The task force may release its findings this summer. The reforms may help set St. Cloud State on a new path.

Unfortunately, any changes will be too late for student Robbi Hoy and her faculty co-plaintiffs. Earlier this month a federal judge dismissed the university's attempt to throw out their case. It seems headed for trial in the fall. They hope to make it a class-action suit.