Civil rights

Black Professor Has Opportunity to Amend Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Penn State

WILLIAMSPORT — The federal civil rights lawsuit of a Black Penn State professor who alleges university bias and racism has survived a motion to dismiss, albeit with a hiccup.

U.S. Intermediate District Judge Matthew W. Brann on Monday dismissed part of Errol A. Henderson’s lawsuit against the university, but gave him the opportunity to file an amended complaint.

The shortcomings that caused the hostile labor claims to be dismissed can be easily remedied by providing more concrete factual details to support his assertion of bias and racism at Penn State, the judge wrote.

Based on the op-ed he wrote and the student newspaper published in January 2019, those details appear to exist, Brann said.

This article recounted various discriminatory experiences that Henderson claimed to have endured during the nearly 20 years he had spent at Penn State at that time.

He called on Penn State to address its institutional racism, which he said had led to a shortage of black faculty and students.

He also urged Penn State to take a serious look at issues of racial bias and employ additional oversight and intervention to address racism on campus.

Brann pointed out that Henderson’s race discrimination complaint was improperly filed under the Non-State Actors Act section.

Since Penn State is a state actor, the error can be easily corrected by filing it again in the appropriate section, he said.

He rejected the university’s assertion that the failure to promote the retaliation request was statute-barred, noting that Henderson was not told he would never be promoted to full professor.

Henderson was hired in 2002 as a tenured associate professor in the departments of political science and African studies.

He acknowledges that during his tenure at Penn State, he has spoken out about comments and actions by senior faculty members and administrators that he believes reflect systemic and institutional biases.

Those complaints, which began as early as 2010, included issues involving Penn State’s failure to successfully recruit black students and faculty.

He also alleged that he failed to contact people who raised concerns about diversity, inclusion and discrimination.

Henderson cited examples of what he said were unprofessional and biased behavior among his colleagues in his court complaint. He was the only black man in the political science department.

He claimed his complaints, which he forwarded to university president Eric J. Barron, were ignored, dismissed, or, if investigated, no action was taken.

At some point after the publication of a book in 2015 titled “African Realism? International Relations Theory and African Wars in the Postcolonial Era,” Henderson applied for a promotion to full professor, but was turned down.

He says he was told in October 2018 that the investigation into his complaints found his allegation of racial discrimination to be unfounded.

Weeks after the op-ed was published in 2019, Henderson says he was made aware that some of his white colleagues complained he had created a racist work environment for them.

He received a formal disciplinary letter on May 16, 2019, accusing him of violating Penn State’s Policy on Discrimination, Harassment, and Related Inappropriate Conduct.

He said Henderson’s conduct of repeatedly referring in meetings and forums to specific members of the political science department reached the level of harassment and creating a hostile work environment.

Penalties imposed included a two-year ban from all departmental meetings and events, a ban on teaching during the 2019-20 school year, and a requirement to take remedial classes to improve classroom performance.

Henderson remains an associate professor in the political science department.

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