Denial of Tenure Leads to Workplace Discrimination Lawsuit

Clark College awarded $80,001 last month to Stephanie Robinson, an African American phlebotomy professor who was denied tenure, to settle a federal workplace discrimination suit.

The settlement reflects an ongoing dialogue about race and equity at Clark, as the college faces scrutiny from the Clark community for a culture of institutional racism and inequity. Following the departure of several women of color from faculty and administration positions in 2018, Clark has attempted to address the lack of inclusivity.

The Indy’s coverage of the settlement relies on publicly available federal court records. Paul Bordeaux, Robinson’s attorney, did not respond to two requests for comments. Stephanie Robinson could not be reached for comment directly.

Robinson began employment as a tenure-track phlebotomy professor at Clark in 2012. Throughout her three-year tenure review process, Robinson experienced multiple situations pointing to a discriminatory workplace environment, she claimed in court records.

Court documents state Robinson was experiencing difficulties with members of her tenure review board. In 2013, Robinson filed a complaint against her tenure-track supervisor, alleging that she was being bullied and harassed, court documents state. Following Robinson’s complaint, the member was removed from her tenure committee.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, multiple students made complaints against Robinson, citing a negative classroom environment, court documents for the defense state.

“Students reported feeling belittled when they could not meet Ms. Robinson’s expectations, that some students left her class crying and needed anxiety medication as a result,” court documents for the defense state.

In June 2014, Robinson’s new supervisor informed her that her classes would be reassigned for the following academic year. Instead of teaching phlebotomy, Robinson was assigned to teach health occupation classes at an off-campus facility. Robinson felt isolated from her peers at the satellite campus, where she had to pay for her own parking, court documents state. 

In October 2014, Robinson filed a grievance against the college, alleging that she had been the target of racial discrimination. A special adviser to the college president was assigned to investigate Robinson’s claim. Robinson alleged that the adviser, “…could not support her because they both ‘were black’ and ‘the college would see that as favoritism,’” court documents for the defense states. 

During Robinson’s final tenure meeting in January 2015, her supervisor attempted to introduce previously unseen binders of student complaints to the committee. This procedure was illegal according to tenure review processes outlined by the college’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

“In short, the state openly admits that Clark College violated state law, as well as the CBA, by presenting extrajudicial information outside of the formal tenure process,” court documents state. Robinson’s supervisor never submitted these materials to the tenure committee for approval, despite many opportunities throughout the review process to do so, court documents state.   

Robinson felt this incident was an ambush on her character.

“Ms. Robinson was never able to defend herself over the dramatic theatre of an African American woman being completely ambushed and blindsided by illegal activities of her administration,” court documents state.

In March 2015, the Board of Trustees denied Robinson’s bid for tenure and elected not to renew her teaching contract for the following school year. Robinson’s last day of employment at Clark was on June 19, 2015.  

Clark claims the unvetted materials provided at the final review meeting had no influence on their decision for the denial of her tenure. “Their decision was based on the lack of merit in her case for tenure, based on her tenure file and the recommendations of Clark College’s President and Vice President,” court documents state.

Clark maintains their position that student complaints and interpersonal conflicts were the basis for Robinson’s denial of tenure, “rather than a hostile work environment based on race,” court documents for the defense state.

Following the settlement, the Indy reached out to the college for comment regarding Clark’s decision to settle.

“The college cannot comment on personnel matters,” Director of Communications and Marketing Hannah Erickson said in a prepared statement. “Very generally speaking, parties are always encouraged to resolve matters at the lowest possible level, as the process and time required for litigation is exponentially more costly, no matter the outcome.”

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