University faces lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination and harassment

Thursday, March 9, 2017 - 6:45pm

One former University of Michigan faculty member and one current University faculty member are bringing a lawsuit against the University claiming racial discrimination and harassment.

One former University of Michigan faculty member and one current University faculty member are bringing a lawsuit against the University claiming racial discrimination and harassment. Buy this photo
Kevin Zheng/Daily

 

One former University of Michigan faculty member and one current University faculty member are joining together to bring a lawsuit against the University under the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, making claims of racial discrimination and harassment. 

The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights 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.

The plaintiffs — Scott Kurashige, a professor in the History and American Culture Departments from 2000 to 2014, and Emily Lawsin, a lecturer in the Women's Studies and American Culture Departments since 2000 — are seeking over $25,000 in damages in the form of lost salaries and emotional harm. Kurashige and Lawsin have been married since they began teaching at the University in 2000, and are being represented by attorney Alice Jennings and Carl Edwards of the Detroit law firm Edwards & Jennings, PC.

Kurashige, who was hired by the University in 2000 as an assistant professor, was promoted to the rank of associate professor with tenure in 2006. In 2012, he was promoted once again to a full-level professor with tenure. Lawsin was hired by the University at the rank of Lecturer II in 2000. Today, she now holds the position of Lecturer IV — a more senior rank.

In an email interview with Jennings, she noted the speed with which Kurashige and Lawsin were promoted was not properly compensated by the University.

"My client rose from the lowest to highest rank on the faculty tenure-track in rapid fashion, faster than nearly all his peers, reflecting an extraordinary level of accomplishment that was not recognized by a proper adjustment of his salary or consideration for leadership positions," Jennings wrote.

According to Jennings, the University violated the Elliott-Larsen Act in multiple ways, including discrimination based on the plaintiffs’ marriage.

“The primary issue is disparate treatment,” Jennings said. “They have been treated differently than others who are not similarly situated for racial reasons. Secondly, there's an issue of hostile work environment, meaning that individual is made to feel different in a way that is painful both intellectually as well as emotionally.”

The lawsuit claims both Kurashige and Lawsin were consistently passed over for promotions and raises, despite each receiving high acclaim in their respective fields. According to the plaintiffs, both of whom are Asian-American, the reason they weren't considered for advancement was racially motivated.

“Even with the requisite raise for promotion effective Fall 2012, Plaintiff's salary remained at the university's scale minimum, far below average for his rank, and well below that of faculty with comparable or less accomplishments,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit asserts Kurashige's continued pursuit of discrimination claims against the University led to his 2013 termination as Director of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies Program, and his later blacklisting by his colleagues, which effectively forced him to resign from his position as professor in 2014.

Additionally, the University attempted to terminate Lawsin's employment in 2015, while she was on leave to care for a baby with Down syndrome, and has barred her from teaching her previously scheduled classes for the winter 2017 semester, which the lawsuit claims was a result of her reporting discrimination against herself and other faculty and students. 

In addition to their own personal accounts of discrimination, the plaintiffs’ complaints contain demographic information about the University for the purpose of illustrating a culture of racial bias and censorship.

“The composition of UM faculty also contradicts the institution's rhetorical commitment to diversity and equity,” the complaint reads. “Of the 3,096 tenured and tenure-track faculty at UM, 74 percent are white, 15.8 percent are Asian (a large portion being international scholars), 4.3 percent are Black, 4.1 percent are Hispanic, 0.4 percent are Native American, and 0.1 percent are Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. At the rank of full professor, 80 percent are white and 73 percent are male.”

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University would be contesting the charges, but provided no further details.

“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.”

Correction appended: At the time of publication it failed to note Kurashige and Lawsin's record of promotion. Kurashige's promotion from assistant professor to a fully tenured, full-time faculty member, and Lawsin's promotion from Lecturer II to Lecturer IV has been added to more accurately reflect the purpose of the lawsuit.