Slma Shelbayah always wanted to be a Middle East television analyst. Now the former Georgia State University doctoral student and visiting instructor at the university's Middle East Institute is finding herself in the media for a different reason -- discrimination against her because of her Middle Eastern background.
Georgia State University is coming under scrutiny after the head of its Middle East Institute stepped down Wednesday, asserting in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint that both she and Shelbayah had been mistreated after an incident of racism. Dona Stewart, who is also a tenured professor of geography, alleges that after Shelbayah was harassed by a professor for wearing a traditional Islamic hijab, they were both subjected to a bout of hostile actions by the university. The EEOC is currently evaluating separate but related complaints filed by Shelbayah in November and Stewart in January.
"As professors, we are in powerful positions," said Stewart, who has been tenured since 2002 and worked at Georgia State since 1996. "We have an obligation not to abuse power, and in this case the professor clearly did that. I am simply not willing to sit by and watch this happen, and I'm shocked that our institution is willing to do so."
The chain of events began last August after Mary Stuckey, a professor of communications and graduate director for the department, was said to have made discriminatory comments about Shelbayah. Stuckey allegedly asked Shelbayah whether she had bombs underneath her hijab and made other references to her carrying bombs. After the incident, and another case where Stuckey made similar racist remarks, Shelbayah filed a grievance within the university, aided by Stewart. After going through the formal complaint process, Shelbayah believed that the issue had been worked out between her and Stuckey.
She wrote in a September 7 e-mail to the communications department chair, which was included in Stewart's EEOC complaint, that "I want you to know that this incident has touched me personally on several levels, but in the end of it all, I feel that it has left me with more positive than negative! I feel that I've grown and developed through it all! I also want to say that Dr. Stuckey and I both feel that it has only brought us to a better understanding of each other and has also strengthened our relationship and connection with one another."
A day later, the associate dean of Georgia State's College of Arts and Sciences informed Shelbayah that she could not remain a visiting instructor while also being a graduate student in the department of communications. Though she had been admitted into the Ph.D. program with the university's full endorsement that she would also be a visiting instructor -- and her previous office-mate had done both as well -- she was told that unwritten policies disallowed such a practice, Shelbayah said.
Stewart and Shelbayah worked together to try to fix the situation, but, according to the EEOC complaint, "the Communications Department refused to allow Slma to continue down the course of study for which it had accepted her prior to complaints against Dr. Stuckey."
Within the next few days, Shelbayah says, she was told that she could not run a study abroad trip to Egypt that she had already planned and advertised. She was also dropped from one of her core classes in the communications department, and administrators were unable to figure out how to fix it. Other annoyances like her insurance not working, she said, made her question whether all of the events were connected.
"I was doubting that it might be connected, but because it was happening really really fast, it was just so strange," she said.
Furthermore, Adamson told Stewart that she was no longer supporting the creation of a bachelor's degree program that Stewart had been planning through the Middle East Institute. The complaint states: "Since then, the [College of Arts and Sciences] Dean's office at the University [has] continued to undermine Dr. Stewart's programs."
Shelbayah recently decided that she would leave Georgia State and take the year off while searching for another communications doctoral program. Stewart's resignation as director of the Middle East Institute Wednesday caps a full academic year of university politics gone sour. She says that pressure from administrators within the college to step down, along with her inability to engage them on the issues she felt to be unjust, led to her ultimate decision. She will remain a tenured professor of geography, but go on leave next year.
"At this point my entire academic career is in question. It's difficult to move from institution to institution, and given my relationship with my administration, it's exceedingly difficult for me," Stewart said. Shelbayah "was an undergraduate and master's student at Georgia State. This is being done to someone who is deeply invested in the university, and I have been here for 13 years.... These are people I have worked with for years, so it took an awful lot to get to this point."
In a statement, Georgia State spokeswoman Andrea Jones wrote: "The university takes very seriously any claims of discrimination. The student's complaint against Professor Stuckey was addressed using university procedure and appropriate action was taken in September of 2008. Due to federal privacy guidelines, the university cannot address the details of the complaint and its resolution. It was Dona Stewart's decision to resign as director of Middle East Institute. While she has resigned as director, Dr. Stewart is still an employee of Georgia State University and was recently promoted to full professor with the dean's support. In no way was retaliation taken against Professor Stewart nor the student as a result of the complaint."
The statement continued: "The university is fully cooperating with the EEOC on this investigation and looks forward to resolving this matter." Jones would not comment further due to the confidential nature of employee records.
This is not the first time Georgia State has been in the middle of controversy for discrimination practices. In 2007, Emelita Bryer, then a chemistry professor at Georgia State, filed a lawsuit against the university after she was denied tenure. She cited her Asian-American ethnicity as the reason. During her time at the university, she said she was subjected to comments regarding there being "too many Chinese" professors, and she asserted that she was paid $2,000 less than the rest of her colleagues. Bryer filed a lawsuit alleging that the university had denied her tenure for racial reasons and paid her less because of her race. Bryer would not speak to Inside Higher Ed, because she signed a confidentiality agreement with the university in the settlement of the case. However, in previous articles about her lawsuit, she has stressed that Georgia State, and indeed the country as a whole, needs to improve that way it deals with racial issues.
Stewart echoed the sentiment: "My hope is that the institution will learn and grow from this," she said.