A/PIA community talks discrimination, upcoming lawsuit

Sunday, November 17, 2019 - 9:39pm

Former University of Michigan Professor Scott Kurashige and Lecturer IV Emily Lawsin discuss corrupt structural practices at the University regarding administrative and sexual misconduct policies at the #UMICHIsComplicit Town Hall at Weill Hall Sunday.

Former University of Michigan Professor Scott Kurashige and Lecturer IV Emily Lawsin discuss corrupt structural practices at the University regarding administrative and sexual misconduct policies at the #UMICHIsComplicit Town Hall at Weill Hall Sunday. Buy this photo
Emma Mati/Daily

University of Michigan students, faculty and community members discussed discrimination and “sham” investigations at the “UM: Corruption, Complicity, Coverups” town hall in Weill Hall Sunday night. The event was hosted by UMich is Complicit: a movement dedicated to combating discriminatory hiring practices and sexual misconduct policies at the University.

The panel featured Scott Kurashige, former director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program and tenured professor at U-M, and his partner Emily Lawsin, a lecturer in the departments of Women’s Studies and American Culture. They filed a discrimination lawsuit against the University under the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in December 2016. 

Kurashige is now a professor at the University of Washington. He said he was removed from his position as the director of the A/PIA Studies Program, and while his tenure prevented him from being fired, the University pressured him to quit.

“While I was here, I was an advocate for students who had faced different types of discrimination or assault,” Kurashige said. “In response, I faced retaliation, harassment. In essence, I was forced to quit under threats and harassment by administrators at this University.”

Lawsin was up for her employment review in 2017 — every few years, lecturers undergo standard performance reviews. She said she expected her contract to be renewed, as she had been working at the University since 2000. However, both departments she works in decided not to renew her contract. She then submitted a rebuttal letter to the LSA Executive Committee. The departments agreed to review her case again two years later. Her next review is expected at the end of this semester. 

She said her treatment at the University is noticeably different from that of her white, male colleagues. Lawsin explained how when she suggested a resolution to the Department of Women’s Studies in 2015, she was dismissed and she felt like her criticism of the University was followed up by disciplinary action against her. 

“The way I was treated for that time period was in stark contrast with the treatment of a white, male lecturer in my department who was found of having sexual misconduct toward a student several years prior,” Lawsin said. “He was given a disciplinary warning but this was never shared with other faculty or his review committee, whereas my resolution to support survivors somehow found its place in my review file to show that I was a troublemaker.”

Lawsin continued, saying they chose to file a lawsuit to not only stand up for themselves, but to stand up for other A/PIA students, faculty and all other community members who might be discriminated against by the University. 

“That’s part of the reason why we decided to file a lawsuit in December of 2016,” Lawsin said. “They threatened not to allow me to come back to teach. Teaching has been my love and we felt that if they could do that to me and force my partner (Kurashige) out, what would they do to others who are even more vulnerable?”

Kurashige discussed the challenges of filing a lawsuit against a major institution like the University. 

“It’s not easy to be a whistleblower in this society, right?” Kurashige said. “When you challenge people in power, they can come down on you with the force of institutional power, they can try to shame you to the public … there are all types of things set up to keep people silent.”

Kurashige said the University attempted to discriminate against he and Lawsin when their newborn child required heart surgery. He said their request for modified duty, where workers are entitled to alternate assignments while they or a family member is recovering from medical illness or injury, was intentionally delayed six weeks. 

“Our child is five years old now, she was born in the spring of 2014,” Kurashige said. “She had a hole in her heart and required open heart surgery … while this was happening, we were both putting in for what’s called modified duty, which is the closest thing the University has to maternity or paternity leave, and what we found through the emails we got in this lawsuit is that the Dean’s office was deliberately delaying processing that while we were in this vulnerable state and concerned about our child.”

In a message to The Daily, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said the University encourages anyone who feels they have been discriminated against to report it and go through with an investigation.

“The University of Michigan has a robust and well-established complaint and investigation process for handling claims of discrimination and we are confident that process is effective,” Broekhuizen wrote. “All persons who believe they have been subject to discrimination and harassment are encouraged to use the university processes for investigating their complaints. It is against university policy and unlawful to retaliate against someone for filing a complaint or participating in the investigation process.”

Kurashige then said though the Office of Institutional Equity is supposed to conduct investigations independently, OIE’s former senior director admitted under cross examination for their lawsuit that they often send information to lawyers at the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel.

“Anything that gets told to OIE, whether you’re a civil rights complainant, sexual misconduct complainant or a survivor, anything you tell them can immediately get transmitted to University lawyers because they are the ones hired to prepare a defense for the University in case there is a civil lawsuit, which is absolutely astonishing that there is absolutely no independence or confidentiality,” Kurashige said. 

Panelist Anna Dang, LSA junior and a representative for the A/PIA Studies Program on the panel, said a previous director of A/PIA Studies hired by the University was hired simply because he was Asian and a biology professor, and this serves as an example of discriminatory hiring practices. Dang later clarified to The Daily the former director that she was referring to was John Kuwada, whom the University hired to be the new director for the 2018-19 school year.

“An example is hiring someone to be the director of the A/PIA Studies Program just because they’re Asian and a biology professor,” Dang said. “This disrespects the A/PIA identity by implying that being part of this identity means that you are politicized and can head a department. And it definitely disrespects the A/PIA Studies Program because it is implying that we only have these skills because we identify as A/PIA. It’s a discerning model that the administration is hiring like this.”

Upon publication, Dang clarified to The Daily she did not mean to critcize Kuwada, but instead to criticize the administration’s questionable hiring practices. 

LSA junior Josiah Walker, a panelist, echoed what Dang said and cited Pamela Heatlie, the former Title IX coordinator, as an example of poor hiring practices. OIE’s investigations faced intense criticism under Heatlie’s leadership.

“There definitely is a disconnect between what administrators say happens and what actually happens,” Walker said. 

Dang concluded by emphasizing the importance of student activism against discrimination at the University. She said students hold the most power in representing A/PIA. 

“As students you have the power to enroll in A/PIA courses, you can declare the ethnic studies minors, you can ask why there aren’t majors in a lot of these programs, you can talk to our professors and connect with them,” Dang said. “And, you know, admin can’t really fire students. We hold an extremely distinctive place in making demands at this University if we can stand together.”

Correction: This article has been edited to better represent Dang's statements regarding Kuwada. The last quote was corrected, replacing "decline the ethnic studies minors" with "declare the ethnic studies minors."