LAWSUIT: Uni covered up prof's sex harassment to avoid appearing racist

A Pennsylvania professor is suing her university, claiming that it covered up sexual harassment claims against a black faculty member for years to avoid appearing racially discriminatory.

The professor, Monica Miller claims in the lawsuit obtained by Campus Reform that she was promoted to head the Africana Studies department following the suspension of Dr. James Peterson after “years” of sexual harassment allegations, according to The Morning Call. Miller also accuses Peterson of harassing her.

Miller claimed that Peterson made multiple attempts to kiss Miller, called her high heels “sexy,” asked and then attempted to pull Miller onto his lap, and rubbed her leg. Miller “felt compromised given the high stakes of the job process and the primary/formative role that Peterson [who headed the Africana Studies department at the time] played throughout,” the lawsuit states.

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The lawsuit claims that the university did not take immediate action when it was made privy to Peterson’s alleged harassment due to Peterson’s race. It says that Lehigh was “highly sensitive” to the appearance of racial bias because of its “racially biased history,” including an investigation of potential racial bias at the school by the Office of Civil Rights.

Due to this sensitivity, the university “deliberately delayed” in taking action against Peterson following its awareness of sexual harassment allegations because “Peterson had every incentive to smear the inquiry as racially motivated” and the university wished to avoid being “accused of racial bias.”

The lawsuit claims that “Lehigh sacrificed vulnerable young women” by allowing them to be sexually harassed “because its image as an unbiased and racially diverse college was more important.” Following the university’s ultimate suspension of Peterson, Miller was put in charge of the Africana studies program so she could be a “token African-American” who could serve “as a racial shield” for the school.

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The lawsuit states that Miller was “unqualified to assume these roles” and that another faculty member, who was white, was not placed in this role because she was “racially unqualified” and Miller, conversely, could “assuage any accusation that Peterson’s suspension for sexual and other misconduct, was not racially motivated.”

Peterson did not respond to a request for comment via his website.

After Miller’s hiring into a role for which she was allegedly unqualified, she was “given no training, no power, and no prestige.” The professor complained to Lehigh, but the school “did not care.”

“By virtue of the lack of qualifications and because it was obvious, she had been appointed as a powerless figurehead, plaintiff suffered a backlash of hostility and alienation from the faculty in Africana Studies,” the suit claims.

Furthermore, while Lehigh had given Miller “extra responsibilities,” the school “refused to discuss any increase in pay.” The lawsuit claims this was due to her “gender.”

The lawsuit further claims that Lehigh “ignored” Peterson’s “improprieties, inappropriate relationship with the Board of Trustees, supervisorial abuses of power over differentially situated colleagues (pre-tenure, junior, female), administrative mismanagement in Africana Studies (e.g., never turning in an end of the year report for Africana Studies for over 5 years), sexism, gender discrimination, etc.” 

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Peterson’s behavior was able to “flourish without recourse” due to the former faculty member’s “overwhelming access to institutional power - from the Dean to the Board of Trustees.”

The lawsuit emphasized repeatedly the university’s prioritization of its own image over anything else, and claimed that it made Miller a “sacrificial lamb to its own racial agenda.”

“Lehigh is committed to an environment that is safe and free from all forms of discrimination,” the school told Campus Reform. “The University is not in a position to comment on the specific allegations contained in the Complaint and will vigorously defend the matter.”

Miller was also reached by Campus Reform via email and through an attorney declined to provide any evidence to back up the lawsuit’s accusations, stating that the plaintiff is “not going to be trying this case in the media,” and that “the complaint speaks for itself.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @mstein81