In many bias cases, allegations involving remarks can come down to a "he said/she said" dispute -- with no certainty about what was said.
In an unusual case that went to trial Monday, a judge found that depositions by a one-time dean constituted an admission that he had made comments like those alleged in the complaint by a professor who was ousted as a department chair -- despite backing from his department. The judge's ruling in fact was part of why he rejected a request by La Salle University to dismiss the case.
According to Majid Tavana, Gregory Bruce -- then the business dean -- responded with anti-Muslim remarks when Tavana filed a university grievance about his ouster as chair. According to Tavana, Bruce accused him of starting "a one-man jihad" over policy differences, and said: "All Iranians have a problem with authority.... Look what you did to the Shah."
La Salle has fought the suit and denied any bias against Tavana based on his ethnicity or religious belief. But J. Curtis Joyner, a federal judge hearing the case, wrote in rejecting the attempt to kill it that Bruce had in his deposition "admitted that he made comments like this to plaintiff."
A spokesman for La Salle said it was university policy never to comment on pending litigation, and reiterated that policy even when told that the judge's ruling specifically indicated that statements like those had been made by a dean to a professor.
In rejecting La Salle's attempt to quash the case, the judge noted that the university also offered a range of non-discriminatory reasons for not wanting Tavana to continue as department chair. Those reasons included disagreements with administrators about class scheduling, allegations that he was "driving off" talent, and disputes over course overload rules. While such reasons could justify the change in the chair's position, the judge said that there was evidence disputing these claims. In addition, the judge noted evidence that the university had changed the reasons it offered over time, which "may imply that the reasons asserted ... here are pretextual."
Laila Al-Qatami, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that while her group was not involved with the Tavana case, she thought it illustrated important and unfortunate trends about bias against Muslim employees. (Iranians are not generally Arabs, but Al-Qatami's group works on behalf of non-Arab Muslims, among other groups, beyond the scope of the organization's name.)
"I've seen this before," she said, in all kinds of employment settings, including universities. "People say the most egregious kinds of things about Arabs and Muslims and they don't have a sense that they shouldn't be saying these things."
Most professionals -- even those who have bias against certain groups -- would think twice before publicly expressing many ethnic or racial stereotypes to an employee who is a member of that group, she said, but they don't exercise that restraint about Muslims. "People hear other people making jihad jokes, and people get ideas from that," she said. "One would hope universities would be better, but...."