Black professor says Indiana university fired him for speaking out about racial disparities

Mark McPhail claims he had his pay reduced by 70 percent for hosting a forum alleging the Indiana University Northwest climate contributed to racial disparities.

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A tenured Black communications professor has filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that his dismissal from an Indiana university was motivated in part by his race.

Mark McPhail, who was a professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, is bringing legal action against IUN, the board of directors, chancellor Ken Iwama, executive vice chancellor Vicki Román-Lagunas and dean David Klamen for allegedly breaching university policy, violating his right to free speech, discriminating against him for being Black and firing him illegally.

According to The Times of Northwest Indiana, McPhail claims the institution violated his employment contract, his First Amendment right to free expression, the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 when administrators wrongfully fired him for speaking out against racial disparities. 

Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Indiana, is named in a federal lawsuit professor Mark McPhail filed alleging he was fired for speaking out against racial disparities at the institution. Several of the school’s top leaders also are named. (Photo: Screenshot/ Northwest Tube)

McPhail also alleged the institution “relied on stereotypes of Black men as irrationally angry and violent.”

In one incident McPhail cited, he claims the university barred him from teaching and had his pay reduced by 70 percent after he hosted a forum that criticized Indiana University Northwest officials, saying they disregarded school policies, and contended the campus climate contributed to racial disparities.

Court records state that the April 2018 forum, titled “Diversity: An unfulfilled promise at IU Northwest,” was to draw attention to the difficulties Black students faced and how IUN failed to assist them.

McPhail also complained to the university administration in August of that year about hiring Klamen, currently the dean of the School of Arts, alleging the process was not transparent and violated university policy, which requires hiring decisions to be “based upon (applicants’) individual qualifications.”

According to court records, as a result of the two incidents, the administration assigned McPhail to Indiana University Bloomington, the system’s flagship school, for two years. 

Following his return to the Gary campus in July 2021, McPhail had a performance evaluation with Klamen. The dean allegedly labeled McPhail’s teaching as “inadequate” due to his reputation and the belief that he gave failing grades to too many students.

McPhail denied Klamen’s claims, questioning how administrators assessed his image and asserting that the failing students didn’t complete the necessary coursework, which the dean reportedly told the professor was an “attempt to shift blame to students for your own professional shortcomings.”

According to court records, Klamen suggested McPhail’s salary reduction and his suspension from teaching following his response to the performance evaluation. The professor, however, says the decision was retaliation for his two prior complaints.

McPhail was fired without a hearing on Sept. 14, 2021, a day after appealing his punishment.

The American Association of University Professors‘ governing council criticized IUN for the professor’s firing on Saturday, a month after publishing an investigative report deeming McPhail’s claims “highly credible” and asserting that IUN’s “racial climate” is hostile toward employees of color.

According to court records, the defendants disputed all of McPhail’s allegations. Román-Lagunas allegedly informed McPhail in his termination letter that the decision was because of remarks made “to the effect that ‘the only way to end racism is to kill all the white people.'”

AAUP’s investigative committee found it “implausible” that McPhail made violent threats and said the university’s actions infringed on the professor’s academic freedom.

IUN officials declined to comment on the ongoing litigation but did share with The Times that they “disagree with the AAUP report.”

They claimed McPhail “selectively quoted” Klamen’s performance evaluation in his lawsuit and maintained that he failed an alarmingly high proportion of pupils, many of whom were of color. 

McPhail wants a jury hearing. He expects to be given his old job back, along with monetary damages.

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