CSUN dismisses discrimination complaint against prof, charges him with ‘retaliation’

A conservative professor at California State University-Northridge is challenging the school’s finding that he retaliated against students for complaining that an optional event featured “anti-gay” and “anti-women” remarks, claiming the investigation was politically-motivated.

“They haven’t stated what the disciplinary action is, and it’s been about three weeks,” Dr. Robert Lopez, an English professor at CSUN, told Campus Reform. “Some people might say I should wait until they announce the punishment, but I think they [university officials] are trying to delay the process.”

Lopez was made aware of the determination in an October 16 letter from Dr. Yi Li, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at CSUN, who informed Lopez that “while it was determined that there is insufficient information to find that you created a hostile learning environment, there is sufficient evidence to support a finding that you engaged in retaliatory acts in violation of CSU EO [Executive Order] 1074” (emphasis in original).

According to the letter, the finding was based on the results of a university investigation into a complaint made by one of Lopez’s former students (whose name has been redacted from documents obtained by Campus Reform) on May 12, in which the student alleged that Lopez had “discriminated against her on the basis of gender” by allowing students in one of his classes to attend an event at the Ronald Reagan presidential library for credit in lieu of completing a different assignment.

The event in question—a conference called “Bonds that Matter” that Lopez had organized independently to discuss children’s rights in the context of dual-parent upbringing—took place on Oct. 3, 2014, and according to a blog post written by Lopez, 110 students chose to attend the conference rather than completing a reflection journal for equivalent credit.

The student who filed the complaint, however, alleged that Lopez had “misrepresented” the nature of the conference by referring to it as a “women’s and children’s rights” conference while failing to mention the “biased viewpoints” that would be presented during the event.

“It appears that the allegations against me can be summarized thus: Because I did not warn women and gays not to attend the conference I organized, I caused them to come unprepared for dangerous ideas,” Lopez wrote in a letter responding to the complaint on June 17. “In other words, the students allege the conference was sufficiently discriminatory against gays that they would have needed trigger warnings before going.”

Moreover, Lopez explained, none of the presentations at the conference focused specifically on homosexuality, and “the verbal comments about gay issues were responses to students who posed aggressive queries about homosexuality as off-topic tangents.”

After investigating the matter for several additional months, the university was ultimately forced to concede in the Oct. 16 letter that offering course credit to students who elected to attend the conference was not inherently discriminatory, and that Lopez’s actions in that respect were protected by the school’s policy on academic freedom.

Lopez had little opportunity to savor his vindication, however, because in the same letter he was also informed that Dr. Li had found merit to claims that Lopez had engaged in retaliation against students who complained about the event—charges that Lopez claims he was not even made aware of prior to the judgement against him.

“They added new retaliation charges without telling me,” Lopez told Campus Reform. “When we went in [to meet with the investigating committee] on June 10, they told me that all of the focus at that time was on the conference.”

Li’s letter explains that the retaliation finding was based primarily on assertions made by the original complainant that he had refused to nominate one of her papers for an award due to the “bad blood” between them, but was also supported by interviews with other students who recalled conversations with Lopez concerning verbal complaints they made after the event.

“I never use terms like ‘bad blood’,” Lopez protested. “She had used that term in an email on Oct. 6, and I just quoted her in my response.”

Li seemed to affirm that chronology in his letter, but said that another student, who the committee “found credible and with no apparent motive to lie,” claimed to recall overhearing Lopez make a statement to the effect that “I’d be less inclined…”

Yet according to Lopez, “the main complainant was not eligible for any awards,” and even received an “A” in the course.

“The only thing I can think of is that she may have wanted me to write a letter of recommendation, in which case I might have told her I’m not the right person,” Lopez told Campus Reform, noting that he tries to avoid writing letters of recommendation if he believes his honest assessment of a student would harm their case.

The other element undergirding the retaliation charge was equally shaky, Lopez said, pointing out that the letter from Li only quotes snippets of testimony from three other students to support the notion that Lopez had attempted to intimidate them from filing their own complaints.

Specifically, the letter relates that the students recalled having conversations with Lopez in which he asked them whether they were “talking to people about the conference,” whether they had “taken care of things,” and whether they were “going to report [him].”

According to Li, “the aforementioned findings … as well as an October 8, 2014 email you wrote to [redacted] in which you explicitly stated, ‘my one request is that you contact me before you raise concerns with others,’ was sufficient to establish by a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard that you engaged in retaliatory acts.”

“They really cobbled together a bunch of very strange quotations,” Lopez told Campus Reform, adding that he doubted the students’ ability to recall conversations that occurred several months previously verbatim, and that in any event he only discussed the matter with them in an effort to comply with CSUN guidelines.

CSUN ruled out the possibility of comment in the letter to Lopez, saying the school “will disclose information about the matter only to persons with a legitimate business need to know.”

Charles LiMandri, president of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which is representing Lopez, elaborated on that point in his response to the determination on Oct. 22, citing CSUN’s own faculty guide, which states that, “as a general rule, students should first attempt to resolve their concern with the appropriate faculty member” before filing a formal complaint.

LiMandri further makes the case that none of the actions of which Lopez has been accused rise to the level of having the “substantial and material adverse effect” that university policy requires in order for them to constitute retaliation.

“Under these circumstances,” LiMandri asserts, “we have no choice but to conclude that the disposition of this investigation is a purely political and ideological attack on Dr. Lopez for holding—and exposing his students to—ideas about children’s rights in the context of family and reproduction which are apparently unpopular at CSUN.”

LiMandri’s letter sets a deadline of November 5 for the university to respond, saying “Dr. Lopez is prepared to pursue all his rights and remedies, up to and including legal action”

“There were a lot of falsehoods in the document,” Lopez told Campus Reform, adding that he has requested a meeting with Dr. Li to discuss the findings, but has yet to receive a response, and will “just have to go forward with the remedies that are available to me” if none is forthcoming.

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