Termination for Using TAs?

St. John Fisher seeks to fire a longtime professor over his use of paid class managers, saying it doesn't qualify as teaching. The professor says more is at play, including discrimination on the basis of his Muslim background.

July 26, 2018
 
Merouane Lakehal-Ayat

He’s received multiple Fulbright fellowships and institutional teaching awards. Now St. John Fisher College wants to fire him, ostensibly for relying too heavily on his teaching assistants. But Merouane Lakehal-Ayat, a longtime professor of finance at Fisher, says there’s more to the story. A lot more -- namely alleged discrimination and retaliation by several colleagues and Fisher more broadly, detailed in a pending complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a related defamation lawsuit.

Lakehal-Ayat’s amended suit filed this week in a New York State court says he was suspended in November “without any basis or written explanation other than attempts by college representatives to bully him into retirement.” He hasn’t been allowed to work since, despite a college policy saying that removal from the classroom absent due process is a severe punishment reserved for those who present a safety threat.

What preceded the suspension were testy interactions between Lakehal-Ayat and an almost entirely new college administration, he says, but nothing hinting at the fact that his new bosses wanted to fire him.

A native of Algeria and a Muslim, Lakehal-Ayat began teaching at Fisher in 1986. He soon developed a reputation as a tough but respected teacher, as evidenced by his four College Teaching Awards and consistently positive performance reviews.

According to his EEOC complaint, things changed around 2016, with the arrival of Rama Yelkur, the new dean of the College of Finance and Accounting. Fisher’s president, provost and human resources officer began around the same time, the complaint notes, and Yelkur was hired over the objections of Lakehal-Ayat's department, which voted for another candidate. 

Yelkur is of Indian descent and soon clashed with Lakehal-Ayat over what he describes as her desire to hire "professors of Indian heritage who are Hindu." In particular, Lakehal-Ayat says he rejected “one of [Yelkur’s] favored Indian and Hindu candidates due to his relative inexperience compared to another candidate who she staunchly opposed and who happened to be of African descent and a Muslim background, although he practices Christianity.” Lakehal-Ayat also disagreed with Yelkur's decision to sack a newly elected department chair. 

Yelkur’s “disdain” for Lakehal-Ayat -- which he links to historical tensions between Hindus and Muslims and his having vocally opposed her hire -- turned to clear discrimination in May 2017, he says. That’s when he was denied a raise, despite a strong performance review and a faculty salary pool allowing for 2.5 percent raises for satisfactory performance and 3 percent for merit.

Lakehal-Ayat says he was the sole tenured professor not to receive a raise and complained of discrimination to his chair and provost. As a result, he was eventually granted a 2 percent pay increase.

Allegedly perturbed that Lakehal-Ayat had complained about her in relation to the pay issue, Yelkur lobbied students on the Student Investment Committee to dump Lakehal-Ayat as their adviser, the EEOC complaint says. Students initially resisted, but Lakehal-Ayat was eventually removed from the volunteer position, it says.

In the fall, Lakehal-Ayat says, Yelkur told him he could no longer teach graduate-level courses but provided no explanation. The college has since linked that decision to a new policy about which journals count in terms of productivity reviews, saying that some of Lakehal-Ayat’s research appeared in an unapproved journal.

Then, in November, Lakehal-Ayat was called to the provost’s office for a meeting with the dean, his chair and a human resources officer. He says he was told to resign on the spot or have his tenure stripped from him and his reputation damaged. He asked why and was told that there were student complaints against him, but that actual allegations were forthcoming. 

Lakehal-Ayat said he needed time to think about the choice, and he was permitted to return to teaching in the interim. His lawyer contacted the college’s counsel but did not receive written charges at the time, either, according to the complaint. Lakehal-Ayat was called to a second meeting with the provost two days later but could not due to a family commitment.

A week later, he was again summoned by the provost, Kevin Railey, who allegedly told Lakehal-Ayat that he was “100 percent confident” Lakehal-Ayat would be terminated by the committee Railey planned to form if he didn’t resign. A week after that, at another meeting, Lakehal-Ayat says that he responded to demands that he quit by telling the provost that his attorney would talk with the campus counsel about a resolution. Those present at were for some reason “infuriated” and suspended him immediately for the remainder of the fall semester, he wrote.

Fisher’s Faculty Statutes, similar to recommended policy from the American Association of University Professors, say tenured professors only should be removed from the classroom if they present a campus safety risk. Yet Lakehal-Ayat and others with close knowledge of the case say he’s never been accused of that.

In the meantime, Lakehal-Ayat says he learned his students were informed that he’d been fired. He also says his campus email was cut off and that the college planned to hire someone to replace him.

In December, via his lawyer, Lakehal-Ayat was informed that the college was accusing him of abandoning his teaching duties. At issue was his longtime use of class managers, or undergraduate finance majors employed and paid by the college to helped design and grade classroom assignments. Lakehal-Ayat adheres to something like the Socratic method in class and believes that students learn when uncovering content themselves, according to those with knowledge of the case but who declined to comment on the record. And paid class managers -- similar to teaching assistants at the graduate level -- help lead that process, they say. Yet, according to Fisher, that style of instruction no longer qualified as teaching.

With charges in hand but no hearing scheduled, Lakehal-Ayat’s lawyer asked if he could return for the spring semester. When he was told no, the professor filed an administrative grievance. The case moved to Fisher’s Rank and Tenure Committee. Lakehal-Ayat says that committee was presented with an “anonymous” report saying that both provost and president desired that he be terminated. The provost, who sits on that committee, also allegedly declined to recuse himself from the case in which he already was so involved and it advanced to a formal termination proceeding.

And ad hoc committee has since been formed to hear Lakehal-Ayat’s case and provide a termination recommendation -- for or against -- to the college’s Board of Trustees. This is the first time Fisher has moved to revoke someone's tenure. Hearings are under way, with the next scheduled in August.

Lakehal-Ayat alleges retaliation on the basis of national origin, religion and age.

Notably, Fisher has no policy regarding the use of class managers. But a generic job description for these departmental assistants says they will “assist faculty members in a variety of responsibilities including preparing and grading quizzes and other assignments, recording grades, assisting in preparing various assessment reports.” That kind of work is what Fisher is faulting Lakehal-Ayat for having his assistants do.

Students will also assist the professor in a variety of responsibilities related to internships, preparation for on-campus events and other administrative functions, and may be called on to represent the department at open houses or professional meetings, according to the job description. The sole qualification is a major in accounting or finance.

The Islamic Center of Rochester has written to Fisher on Lakehal-Ayat’s behalf, expressing concern that the 32-year professor faces “prejudicial action from an institution to which he has given so much of his professional life.”

The “context, circumstances and the facts resulting from this over-zealous pursuit of his termination appear retaliatory,” the letter says. “There has been a complete denial of due process and a total disregard of any attempt to address any issues between the college and Lakehal-Ayat with other less severe remedies not resulting in termination.”

Alluding to Yelkur’s background and noting that the college originally sought to schedule Lakehal-Ayat’s hearing during Ramadan, the center wrote that “if overt prejudice and discrimination are not in play here, implicit bias and cultural insensitivity clearly appear to be.”

Given the “overall tone in this country today and the ongoing effort of some to vilify people of the Islamic faith, that an institution of higher education such as St. John Fisher would even be an indirect participant in such hysteria is deeply disappointing.”

Lakehal-Ayat did not response to a request for comment. His attorney, Peter J. Glennon, declined comment, saying both he and Lakehal-Ayat were restricted from speaking about the tenure termination proceeding according to Fisher’s Faculty Statutes.

The allegations of discrimination and retaliation contained in the EEOC complaint and defamation lawsuit, meanwhile, “speak for themselves,” Glennon said.

Jeffrey Baker, president of the New York State Conference of the AAUP, said he has been monitoring procedure at the hearings and reporting back to the association, but otherwise declined comment on the ongoing case.

Railey, the provost, and Yelkur, the dean, did not respond to a request for comment. Kate Torok, a Fisher spokesperson, said via email that it’s against college policy “and otherwise inappropriate” to comment on “ongoing internal employee disciplinary matters.”

Lakehal-Ayat, who is seeking damages, remains suspended with pay.

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