A/PIA community rallies after Lawsin contract renewal denied by 'U'

Monday, April 16, 2018 - 11:55pm

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Roseanne Chao/Daily

As a student at the University of Michigan, 2008 alum Aisa Villarosa fell in love with the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program — housed in the American Culture Department — because it allowed her to learn about other cultures and her own heritage; she learned lessons she hadn’t been exposed to growing up in the majority-white suburbs of Detroit.  

She said she owes this great experience in A/PIA Studies to faculty members, including longtime Lecturer Emily Lawsin. Lawsin has been teaching at the University since 2000.

“The number one thing is just how amazing the A/PIA Studies faculty are — the ones that built our experience as undergraduates,” Villarosa explained.

When news began to surface earlier this year about the American Culture and Women’s Studies Departments’ decision to not renew Lawsin’s contract, Villarosa took action.

Villarosa is now an attorney, and aided in the drafting of updates, fact sheets and a viral petition on Lawsin’s case. These documents can all be found on the A/PIA Alumni Tumblr page, organized by a coalition of A/PIA alumni.

“I think that (Lawsin) is just a really special mentor,” Villarosa said. “So, it's been quite easy for me to say, ‘Hey, I do have a job, or hey, I have these other things going on,’ but I would support her in a heartbeat. And I think that many other folks also feel the same and it's been edited in the petition, the website, the Tumblr — these are all just voluntary things, but we are happy to do them.”

Villarosa, who wrote an op-ed published in The Daily earlier this month, said she is especially disheartened because the A/PIA program was so strong during her time as a University student, and she does not see it as the same now.

“I think something really powerful about the A/PIA Studies Program at its peak was that it was really intersectional,” Villarosa explained. “When I talked to current students today about the A/PIA Studies Program … so many key folks are either being pushed out or feeling unwelcome. The program kind of seems like a shadow of what it was before, which is really too bad because it is a really critical piece of your identity.”

Villarosa remembers similar complaints of toxic environment and racial discrimination being discussed in the department when she was a student 10 years ago.

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Lawsin went up for a standard employment review last year. All lecturers undergo what they call “major reviews” every few years, but after 18 years of teaching at the University, Lawsin faced a “presumption of renewal” — her reviewers were supposedly coming into this process with the assumption her contract would be renewed.

“I received (the report) in November, right after Thanksgiving, and you read the report and it's actually going pretty good — really good teaching observations, effective teacher, a really good evaluation score,” Lawsin said.

But as she read on, Lawsin realized both departments had decided not to renew her contract. Though she did not wish to disclose to The Daily specific reasons cited by the departments for her non-renewal, Lawsin felt the reasons, combined with the breach in procedure by denying her a presumption of renewal, gave her a strong enough case to submit a rebuttal letter to the LSA Executive Committee.

As a member of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, Lawsin is supported throughout the review process by Kirsten Herold, vice president of LEO and Lawsin’s appointed union representative. Herold was just as shocked by the outcome of the review as Lawsin.

“The University has the right to academic judgement when it comes to lecturers,” Herold said. “They have the right to decide who is or isn’t good. But they don’t have the right to be arbitrary ... In a general way, we’ll argue that the judgement that was exercised was arbitrary. They found things they didn’t like about her because they didn’t like her.”

Both departments agreed to review Lawsin’s case once more. In February, they again recommended her termination. In March, Lawsin found out the decision would be upheld by the LSA Executive Committee. She will continue teaching at the University for two “terminal” years, at which point she’ll undergo another review. If her contract is not renewed again, she will have to leave the University.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, speaking on behalf of LSA administration, declined to comment.  

Lawsin said she sees the failed review as a consequence for speaking out about the mistreatment and discrimination she’s felt at the University over the last 18 years. She said she doesn’t know how likely it is she’ll be able to stay on with the University when her next review comes in two years.

“I've never really met anyone who's in this position,” Lawsin said. “It’s very unique. I have a lawsuit against the University. It’s clear that this is an act of retaliation.”

Lawsin filed the lawsuit in question jointly with her husband Scott Kurashige, a former University professor and Asian American Studies scholar. Kurashige served as the director of the A/PIA Studies Program beginning in 2010, until he was abruptly removed from the position without warning before his term had finished. In 2016, Lawsin and Kurashige filed a legal complaint against the University under the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, making claims of racial discrimination and harassment.

The Elliott-Larsen Act, passed in 1976, prohibits discrimination based on “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status,” in employment and education, among other areas.

Kurashige and Lawsin are represented by civil rights lawyer Alice Jennings. In an interview with The Daily, Jennings said this case is unique because the University has prided itself on prioritizing diversity and equity, especially in recent years.

Despite what some people automatically think about U-M as a wonderful place, there are people who know … It’s not like that all the time,” Jennings said. “Or even sometimes, depending on who you are.”  

Though Fitzgerald declined comment for this article, he told The Daily in March 2017 the University would not acquiesce to the charges.

“We will vigorously defend the University against this lawsuit,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily. “In fact, the University already has filed a motion to dismiss much of the complaint.”

The 2016 lawsuit cites a whole slew of situations Lawsin and Kurashige went through at the University, including pay disputes, conflicts with administrators, mishandling of their requests from the Office of Institutional Equity and others. The majority of the issues described in the lawsuit stem from what they feel is an inhospitable environment at the University for faculty of color who speak out about injustice.

“I think the pattern of discrimination and filing things on faculty of color or students of color who speak up is a growing problem that stretches back years and years,” Lawsin said. “But the University would like to cover that up.”

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Lawsin, a spoken-word artist and scholar with a master’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, began teaching as a lecturer at the University in 2000. She was referred to as a “spousal hire” by the University — a term alleging she owed her employment to her marital status and her husband’s accomplishments, rather than her own.

Lawsin isn’t the first faculty member to feel undertones of discrimination in the American Culture Department. Sarita See, a good friend of Lawsin’s, joined the faculty as a tenure-track assistant professor in 2002 with a joint appointment in the American Culture Department and English Department. At first, she said, the job was like a dream come true.

“I felt like my scholarship was really being challenged in exciting ways, because there were so many assistant professors of color pursuing scholarship,” See said. “All of that changed in about five years, when you started to see these colleagues of mine, who became very close friends, start to go up for tenure and start to get denied, and lecturers would get fired.”  

See soon went up for tenure herself. After obtaining tenure in American Culture and being denied it in English, she appealed the decision, which meant her case would go to the LSA administration for higher review. LSA overruled the decision of the English department, and eventually See received the distinction in both of her departments. But the difficulty of the experience had left such a bad taste in her mouth that when University of California, Irvine made her an offer for employment in 2011, she was ready to leave. According to See, Kurashige was the only faculty member who tried to convince her to stay in Ann Arbor. The University, she says, didn’t try to stop her.

In 2008, just three years before See left the University, Lawsin received the Outstanding Faculty Award from United Asian American Organizations. By that point, she’d become a well-known lecturer among students. She also participated in social justice work in Detroit, and was a vocal advocate on and off campus for Filipino Americans, Asian-American women and other underrepresented minority groups. She says her classes regularly had waitlists and her student evaluations were consistently positive. In 2009, she was promoted from Lecturer II to Lecturer III, though according to the lawsuit filed by Lawsin and Kurashige, this promotion came six years later than the University originally suggested it would.

In October 2012, Haven Hall was vandalized late at night. An assailant tore down posters relating to people of color, women and the LGBTQ community in the hallway that houses the American Culture Department. Lawsin’s door was targeted and she felt the damage constituted a hate crime.

A violent, racist and misogynistic image was actually placed on my door, on my bulletin board. And I was completely upset about it and scared, frankly,” Lawsin said. “The University spokesperson — without even having done the investigation, before the investigators even came to talk to me —  told The Daily that (they didn’t) feel it was a hate crime.”

DPSS reported in its incident log that the act “did not appear to be malicious as materials were not strewn about.”

The following year of 2013 was busy for Lawsin. She became pregnant, and the pregnancy was classified as high-risk. Her husband, who was serving as director of A/PIA Studies since 2011, was removed from his position without warning after disputes with LSA and department administration. Tensions grew between Kurashige and other (mostly white) department faculty, and after a large exodus of A/PIA Studies faculty from the program, Lawsin and Kurashige worried about the future of their program. By most accounts, including an official Rackham Department Review obtained by The Daily, the climate in the American Culture Department had become toxic.

Kurashige left the University for a position at the University of Washington at Bothell in 2014. He said the University did not attempt to retain him.

Lawsin decided to stay at the University. Following the birth of her daughter, Lawsin requested modified teaching duties for the fall 2014 term. When her daughter needed heart surgery later that fall, she took a leave of absence for the remainder of the winter 2015 term. According to the lawsuit, while on this protected medical leave, Lawsin was laid off from teaching duties for fall 2015, regardless of the fact she still had two years remaining on her contract. With her LEO representative, Lawsin successfully appealed the layoff, and was reinstated in her teaching position.  

During this time, Lawsin said she felt the “hostile racial climate” in the American Culture Department was getting worse. She had previously switched her appointment to be two-thirds Women’s Studies and one-third American Culture, and moved her office out of the American Culture Department’s Haven Hall wing. By the spring 2015, she found working in American Culture to be unbearable. Lawsin emailed a discrimination complaint against the University to Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers, vice provost for Equity and Inclusion, but according to Lawsin, his responses in their email correspondence over the next four months were “evasive.” She said he did not address her questions about the department’s unwillingness to retain faculty of color — the department had lost over 20 in the years between 1997 and 2016. He referred her to the Office of Institutional Equity.

In October 2015, Lawsin filed a complaint with the Office of the Provost, citing professional misconduct from Sellers and Rackham Dean Janet Weiss, with whom she’d previously filed a discrimination complaint that had been dismissed. She received a response saying the provost disagreed with her allegations of misconduct, again referring her to OIE.

So Lawsin met with Pamela Heatlie, then-senior associate director of OIE and current director. The meeting lasted three hours. At the end, Lawsin requested to submit a written complaint, rather than a verbal one. According to the lawsuit, Heatlie reported the visit to June Howard, then-chair of the American Culture Department. Howard acknowledged the OIE complaint Lawsin had filed to the entire faculty, and Lawsin felt this was a blatant breach of confidentiality from Heatlie and the OIE.

“They say on their websites and in their material and even when you meet with them that they’re neutral, but I found that they’re not neutral at all,” Lawsin said.

Also in fall 2015, Lawsin spoke from the floor at a campus-wide Diversity Summit with University President Mark Schlissel, calling out the lack of retention efforts made to faculty of color at the University who had received other job offers. According to the lawsuit, Lawsin received applause for the comment.

“I appreciated your comment earlier about retention, and how retention of students of color are very important,” The Daily quotes Lawsin as saying at the summit. “Retention of faculty and staff of color is equally as important.”

In January 2016, after several other back-and-forth exchanges with administrators about what she felt was misconduct and discrimination on the part of her department and supposed third-party investigators, Lawsin informed her department chairs she was unable to work for three weeks due to emotional distress caused by her work environment. Substitute teachers were hired and Lawsin was instructed not to communicate with them.  

In May 2016, the OIE and Academic Human Resources completed a review of the American Culture Department. The two-page report handed out to faculty members was a summary of a longer, confidential document supposedly only available to LSA deans. According to the lawsuit, Howard stated when she distributed the summary, “allegations of systematic discrimination were found to be without basis in fact.”  

In fall 2016, Lawsin took another protected medical leave, again based on her inability to work in an environment she felt to be excessively hostile.

In 2017, her scheduled major review to examine her employment as a Lecturer IV began.

***

As her tenuous employment status and issues with the University have gained publicity, a growing group of former and current students has begun to rally behind her. To many alumni and current students of the A/PIA community, Lawsin is a leading mentor figure at the University.

A petition now circling to “Fully restore University of Michigan’s Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies” has over 2,300 signatures. Along with the full restoration of tenured faculty and cultivating growth for the A/PIA department, the petition also calls for the end of the harassment of Lawsin and the reinstatement of Kurashige. Many alumni feel the program hasn’t been the same since his departure.

“Since 2013 though, A/PIA Studies has been reduced to a shadow of its former self due to decisions by administrators who have failed to appreciate the program’s value and potential,” the online page reads. “The most dedicated faculty have been fired or pushed away -- in disturbingly similar ways as others at campuses across the country. The classes and programs we built up have disappeared. Because of this, the climate for A/PIA students and everyone at the University of Michigan has become less inclusive and more hostile.”

Many members of the A/PIA Studies community have worried about the lack of attention paid to the program by the American Culture Department and the University as a whole since 2013. In another op-ed published by The Daily in 2016, Villarosa wrote she felt the department had been reduced to a “shadow of its former self because of top-down decisions by administrators lacking proper knowledge and expertise to appreciate the program’s value and potential.”

Since 2017, the program has been directed by John Kuwada, a professor of microbiology with no scholarship or teaching experience in the field of A/PIA Studies. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but sent a statement regarding his time in the program.

“Our program is thriving,” Kuwada’s statement reads. “We have the highest number of faculty members ever, since the program’s establishment in 1989. With the arrival of a newly recruited faculty member in fall 2018, we will have a core faculty of eight, eight, as well as 17 faculty associates from across campus.”

Alexandra Stern, the current chair of the American Culture Department, told The Daily she feels Kuwada has been a successful program head so far. Most of the events detailed in Lawsin and Kurashige’s complaint occurred before she became an administrator in the department, but she emphasized she has always felt American Culture has prioritized inclusivity and fair treatment.

I reiterate what is my knowledge of the department and what I see and the kind of department that I strive to be chair of, which is one in which diversity is paramount,” Stern said. “I'm not saying every day is a perfect sunny day, but certainly we have a very good track record of working through some of the blips that appear and you know, faculty will have differing opinions on things as faculty always will do.”

***

In addition to the online petition, many others have voiced their support for Lawsin and admonished the University for the way it has handled the situation. See, along with Rachel Lee and Karen Leong, two other scholars in the field of A/PIA Studies, sent an email to several administrators and the Board of Regents asking them to reconsider the outcome of Lawsin’s review.

“We are especially concerned about Professor Lawsin’s firing and what this indicates about the state of Asian American studies at your campus because we have been invited to U of Michigan to present our research later this semester … We now find this prospect tainted by this shocking news of our colleague’s potential dismissal. We urge your to investigate and intervene in Professor Lawsin’s case so as to ensure her appointment renewal and her reinstatement,” the email, sent to The Daily by See, reads.  

The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership — which Lawsin worked with closely — also condemned the University in a statement to The Daily. Richard Feldman, a board member of the organization, wrote, “this assault on Professor Lawsin’s integrity contradicts everything we know of her as a respected community activist, thoughtful teacher and committed scholar.”

“We are deeply saddened that at a moment when the University should be leading the state in developing support for students of color, faculty appear to be reacting in petty and negative ways,” Feldman wrote. “The administration has the capacity to reverse this injustice.”

Angela Salacata and Tina Guytingco, co-cultural chairs of the Filipino American Student Association — both LSA freshmen — were disheartened by the news when it was announced during one of their meetings, especially as Lawsin has been an inspirational figure for the Filipino student population.

“I was kind of disgusted, really,” Salacata said. “I hadn’t known that U-M used to have a pretty expansive A/PIA offerings and classes. And just kind of the seemingly arbitrary actions being claimed against Emily Lawsin who is maybe the one of the only academics who can talk about the Filipino experience, the fact that her job security is in danger under the University is really just frustrating and repulsive.”

“Me, being a freshman, it really kind of exposed me to the different things going on in the University,” Guytingco said.

Similar to Villarosa and other community members, Salacata said the incident has made her feel like the University does not care about the A/PIA Studies Program.

“(As an A/PIA student) I feel like I am being treated quite unfairly — as a community we are treated unfairly by … the University deliberately (trying to) shrink this entire program that’s dedicated to studying my history and my disapora’s history,” Salacata said. “And that’s a really big shame because there is such a huge interest in A/PIA Studies, if the University just kept us in mind as people who are interested in learning our own history.”

“It’s giving us even more of a reason to exist as orgs and to promote our culture as orgs and promote more dialogue as organizations on this campus that was underrepresented in the classes being taught and the current policy the administration wants to enforce,” she continued.

Some of Lawsin’s current students were also surprised at the treatment Lawsin was receiving.

Music, Theatre & Dance senior Spencer Haney said they were surprised the University was so “blatant” in disregarding Lawsin and her husband’s concerns. One of the allegations, that she focuses on the Filipino experience too much, seemed ridiculous to them since they said the class had been very intersectional so far — with varying identities of race and LGBTQ studied extensively.

“(My friends and I) were shocked,” they said. “I know some of her former students that I am friends with were really surprised, also speaking really highly of her class that I (am taking).”

Other students beyond the A/PIA community are beginning to organize on behalf of Lawsin as well. The campus chapter of HeForShe, an organization devoted to the advancement of women worldwide, sent an email to their listserv inviting members to participate in a sit-in at the LSA Dean’s office, scheduled to take place this Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Come show support of WoC (Women of Color) on our campus and rally for justice for Professor Lawsin!” the email, obtained by The Daily, reads.

After publishing her op-ed in The Daily, Villarosa said many people have reached out to her, telling her of similar discriminatory patterns they noticed against themselves at the University.

“With all of this happening with the votes against Professor Lawsin, with the various things that I've seen while serving on the student equity committee, and then things that I've seen as an alum, it just appears like these problems are persisting in 2018,” Villarosa said. “Because the program has given us so much and now that we’re alum, you know, our perspective is unique compared to students,” Villarosa said. “I think that we do have a duty to give back to a program that's given that so much.”

Lawsin and Kurashige have a trial date scheduled for November. As Lawsin and campus advocates fight the University on the result of her review, Jennings continues to gather more information regarding discrimination at the University and in the American Culture Department specifically.

I believe that Professor Kurashige and Professor Lawsin … really want to make U-M a better place,” Jennings said. “They want to make you (think of it) as a place where the policy that they have actually comes up to that standard. And they know they can't do it by themselves. They but they want to be those change agents.”

Villarosa said she last saw Lawsin during the Association of Asian Americans Studies Conference in the Bay Area.

“I’ve seen the toll that this struggle has taken on her and it’s frustrating to (see) not just a great teacher, but a wonderful human being now going through a lot of pain, going through a lot of isolation,” Villarosa said. “Especially because she really believes in the A/PIA Studies Program and you want it to be thriving and (she has) to be a colleague of people in a department who might not have that department's best interest in mind.”

The Michigan Daily is investigating other claims of racial prejudice in the American Culture department and throughout the University, including Kurashige’s experience with the administration. Look for additional articles on the topic to follow next semester.