Racism, envy and bad judgment are detailed in Cherokee professor’s case against NSU
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. -- The first words in Northeastern State University’s mission statement are as follows: “Founded on the rich educational heritage of the Cherokee Nation.” NSU’s focused mission statement proclaims, “We empower individuals to become socially responsible global citizens by creating and sustaining a culture of learning and discovery,” and the vision statement begins, “We will be the educational partner of choice in eastern Oklahoma.”
Built on native tradition to empower individuals in eastern Oklahoma, NSU appears to be a university poised for diversity and success. Yet, some people in the university’s home of Tahlequah have begun to question if NSU has lost sight of this mission and goals.
As noted in an earlier Red Dirt Report story “Cherokee professor battles NSU over allegations of racism and discrimination,” a professor suspended in 2013 and fired this month has filed suit against NSU officials for discriminatory practices and treatment, including his firing without due process.
The professor, Will Miller (not his real name), has many documents supporting his claims, which are being investigated by a federal prosecutor from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, who is in Tahlequah this week interviewing NSU personnel, former staff and students.
Miller and I met in a Tahlequah diner, where he shared the transcripts of many emails, Facebook posts, letters from NSU officials and other records showing both unethical and criminal statements. He also shared a taped conversation that exposed the university human resources department’s bungled attempt at conducting a mediation conference between Miller and colleagues who had made racist comments about him in public.
Miller filed a hostile work environment complaint with the human resources department against several colleagues. One of them then sent him a series of emails telling him he “didn’t understand the intent” of the racist taunts and asking him to meet with her to talk about it. Miller said he would only do so if other university officials and a mediator were present.
In protest, the colleague, a full professor, staged a kind of sit-in on the floor outside Miller’s office, where she banged her head repeatedly against the door. She told Miller’s assistant that she wasn’t leaving until Miller came and talked to her; however, at the time, Miller was on his way to another NSU campus to teach an evening class.
Eventually, the disturbed colleague went to the provost’s office and made a demand that he force Miller to return to campus to speak with them immediately. When she would not calm down and actually struck him, the provost had to have the police escort her off the premises, and she was given 24 hours to clear out her office and leave campus.
Despite the colleague’s firing, the hostile environment continued because the woman’s husband also taught in the same department with Miller. In fact, Miller believes most of the harassment within the languages and literature department that he faced from the time he came to NSU in January 2010 was the result of the husband’s anger at not getting the position that Miller was hired for.
This resentment apparently lingered, despite the fact that since both the husband and the wife taught in the same department, neither one could have ever held a position of authority over the other—as that was against university rules.
When the resentment turned into mockery of Miller and then led to racist statements against him, Miller sought help from administrators, but he was told to “do something about it yourself. You’re the head of the department.”
As the head of the department, Miller wrote official letters of complaint against the husband/wife team that repeatedly joked about him in public and made racist statements about him. Miller does not think that these letters ever were put on file.
The colleague who had wanted Miller’s job did eventually appear in a meeting with Miller, another colleague, and the human resources representative, but no mediator (which Miller had asked for) was present, and the human resources officer began the meeting by saying she had “little experience in these matters.”
The colleague (one half of the husband/wife team) asked Miller why he didn’t just ask if he was racist. He could have explained that he was only joking. The meeting ended abruptly after this, when Miller realized that it was an ill-conceived attempt that did not follow procedure for dealing with harassment and complaints.
Miller’s lawsuit against NSU names professors, deans and other administrative personnel, all who Miller says have a problem with being out of touch with the goals of the university and its commitment to diversity and integrity. He also noted several personal concerns about some of the deans and administrators who have recently come to NSU and how racism and sexual misconduct were in their histories. Of a new department chair who left his wife and six children and came to NSU with his 22-year-old girlfriend, Miller said, “the rumor of his affairs beat him here.”
When Miller changed a policy that allowed every professor in the department to have a vote in decisions that affected them (rather than the previous policy of having tenured professors with one vote and non-tenured professors with a half of a vote), he angered many colleagues.
However, before the change “five people could control everything,” Miller explained. “Now you need twenty-six votes, or a two-thirds majority to conduct business.”
Miller said his fault was that “I tried to give everybody a voice in that department and I was loved on one side for it and resented on the other side.”
When he was suspended in 2013, Miller was not given a reason. He only discovered it recently when NSU representatives told his lawyer that Miller was fired because the campus police had done a threat-assessment investigation and determined he was capable of physical violence and thus banned from campus. Miller has never seen this report, nor had he heard anything about it until late April of this year.
One of Miller’s colleagues in another department was in the diner as we were eating, and he stopped by to say that he believed Miller was a “man of honor” and doing the honorable thing. This colleague, who has taught at NSU for more than two decades, said he believed that the university’s heritage that was at one time intrinsically tied to the female matriarchal model found in Cherokee culture had totally shifted with the current administration.
Some people with long-time ties to NSU see the present leadership as out of touch with the native population and the spirit of the institution. The ones now directing the school, the colleague said, “are just people passing through.”
However, he hopes, as does Miller, who would like to have his job back, that the current imbalance in vision will right itself in time. Perhaps Miller’s lawsuit will begin that shift.
Next: An NSU professor attacks students with impunity, Cherokee students are being driven from NSU, and more injustices documented by Miller
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