Questioning a University's Reputation

A former professor at the New School accuses it of failing to live up to its own progressive reputation, denying her tenure for her work on diversity.

August 14, 2018
Robin Hayes

The New School is known as a forward-thinking institution. Yet a new federal lawsuit alleges that it denied tenure to a scholar who is a sexual and racial minority because she was doing too much work on diversity.

The university denies that but says it’s limited about what it can say about an ongoing legal matter. Either way, the contours of the case are familiar in an era of big institutional diversity initiatives, in that a university allegedly wooed a faculty member who could help it meet its diversity goals but failed to adequately support her once she was hired. It's also something of a cautionary tale for interdisciplinary scholars with creative media projects seeking tenure in more traditional academic departments.

Robin J. Hayes, a black lesbian filmmaker who was Yale University’s first Ph.D. in a joint program in political science and African American studies, says the New School denied her tenure on the basis of race and sexual orientation. Her lawsuit alleges that the New School historically lacks faculty diversity and that no black lesbian has earned tenure since before 1997, when students protested the denial of tenure to M. Jacqui Alexander, a black lesbian who is now a professor emeritus of women's and gender studies at the University of Toronto. Hayes’s lawsuit also says that the New School’s nonwhite student statistics are skewed by the campus’s large number of international students.

The New School referred questions about its ethnic makeup to public sources, including College Factual, which reports its nonresident “alien” undergraduate population as 33 percent. That’s more than most other institutions in the country. Of U.S. resident students, 12 percent are Hispanic, 9 percent are Asian and 6 percent are black, according to the federal College Scorecard.

The university's faculty is 8 percent black, according to College Factual. That puts it ahead of many other campuses in terms in terms of representation, but far behind the share of the U.S. population over all that is black (13 percent).

A Promising Start

Essentially, Hayes’s lawsuit alleges she is a victim of the New School’s scramble to diversify its faculty following a 2009 internal report identifying a lack of tenured and tenure-track faculty members and leaders of color and little oversight and support for ongoing diversity efforts. In its haste to hire Hayes in response to public criticism of the university based on the report, the lawsuit alleges, the New School did not pay adequate attention to the other key part of any successful faculty diversity initiative: climate. And indeed, many scholars of the academic work force have cautioned amid diversity efforts nationwide that it’s not enough to simply hire underrepresented minority faculty members. Rather, climate must be monitored and other supports offered so that these scholars stay and succeed.

Regarding that controversial internal report on diversity, the university said it was published online in 2010. That same year, according to the lawsuit, Hayes was thriving in a tenure-track position at Santa Clara University. But the New School recruited her, promising her a position at what are now the Schools for Public Engagement and asking her to promote learning and scholarship about inequality. Her formal appointment was to the Milano School of Management and Urban Policy as an assistant professor of nonprofit management and urban policy, with courtesy appointments in international affairs and media studies.

Evaluations of her work by both students and faculty members were consistently strong, according to the lawsuit. Among her achievements, Hayes counts the establishment of a successful New Leaders for Social Change internship program, in 2011, and the release of an award-winning feature film, Black and Cuba, in 2014.

Yet Hayes says she was consistently denied mentorship, a partner hire for her same-sex partner, an early tenure review, workload relief for a faculty-student collaboration on which she says she spent 25 hours per week and even a replacement computer -- unlike her heterosexual white colleagues in similar positions. She also says she was paid less than similarly situated professors but was denied information about peer salaries when she asked whether her pay was fair.

Disappointing Climate

In 2012, she says, her assigned faculty mentor met for lunch with her just once and offered some feedback on a draft article. Despite that failure of mentorship, the mentor was soon promoted to an associate deanship. She failed to notify Hayes that she no longer considered herself her mentor, however, according to the lawsuit, leaving Hayes in the lurch when it came time to prepare for a major pretenure review. After that, a new assigned mentor, who is white, allegedly expressed surprise that the New School hadn’t assigned Hayes a mentor of color. Hayes found the comment offensive, a classic form of "racial marginalization," according to the lawsuit.

In 2014, Hayes says, the New School also resisted her plan to teach a summer-term hip-hop, media-making and democracy lab, despite the fact that hip-hop has a footprint at other, highly regarded institutions. Additionally, she says, a white administrator with whom Hayes met about the proposed lab said during the meeting -- allegedly with no prompting -- that she was planning to attend a conference on white privilege and that she regretted having adopted a child of another race because of the pressures her child faces. At a later meeting, that same administrator is alleged to have said that “senior faculty” members would not "appreciate" the hip-hop course.

Hayes says that while she was eventually approved to teach the lab, she was granted lower pay than is typical for summer courses -- about 50 percent less.

She also says that she was told to do “less around diversity” regarding service during her postprobationary review. She was also advised to build relationships with the faculty and do more service in media studies, where she only had a courtesy appointment. Hayes says she took that to mean that she’d need to start her tenure process over, in that she’d be denied tenure in her primary appointment.

“Instructing Hayes to take time away from her scholarship and perform ‘housekeeping’ services for the university further telegraphed the university’s discriminatory intention,” reads the lawsuit, echoing research on gendered and racialized expectations for service.

Another administrator also allegedly advised her to write a book to gain tenure, which Hayes says was never otherwise expressed to her or written. Previously, Hayes understood that her film work would count toward tenure.

In fall 2015, after being denied the opportunity to apply for tenure early, Hayes says, she told another associate dean about her concerns about discrimination. That dean also allegedly advised Hayes that she should abandon her creative work in pursuit of tenure -- even though New School’s Faculty Handbook states that creative work is tenure-eligible scholarship. That same dean allegedly called Hayes on her personal mobile phone at a later date and asked her why she was working on a separate television project, telling her he thought she’d agreed to “forget the whole media thing.”


In 2016, Hayes -- allegedly upon the advice of the dean -- sought an outside job offer and approached the New School with it to complain about how she’d been treated and potentially renegotiate a contract. Administrators allegedly said they did not want her to leave but asked her to sign a contract stating she would complete two projects to be eligible for tenure, a tougher standard than what is outlined in the Faculty Handbook.

Hayes also made several complaints about discrimination, which she says were never investigated. At the same time, she says, the university was attempting to terminate her. In 2017, it finally did, citing her “protest” over the alleged discrimination, the fact that she’d informed students that a class might be canceled due to low enrollment and her failure to meet with administrators in a timely manner to discuss course scheduling. The university also said that she’d failed to report to a class and that she’d resigned, both of which she denies. Her last day of employment was in March 2017, and she hasn’t been allowed to schedule a hearing to appeal the termination.

The New School said in a statement that "the allegations set forth in the complaint are false and completely without merit, and we look forward to vigorously contesting them in a court of law."

Benjamin Dictor, Hayes’s attorney, said she was unavailable for comment on the pending case. But he said that case is about more than just Hayes, in that “institutions like the New School have long been able to hide behind their progressive veneers to avoid scrutiny of policies and practices that contradict their public images.”

The New School “had many opportunities to support Prof. Hayes and failed to do so,” he added. It “not only discriminated against Prof. Hayes in the context of her employment and scholarship,” but also “retaliated against her when she complained about that.” Such treatment is only the most recent example “of a culture and history of discrimination” at the institution.


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