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A photograph of a statue of the Penn State Nittany Lion mascot looking toward a building on campus.

Pennsylvania State University at Abington claims to be the most diverse of Penn State’s 24 campuses.

Penn State at Abington

A white Pennsylvania State University at Abington professor resigned in August and is now suing, alleging discrimination against white people.

Penn State at Abington hired Zack K. DePiero in 2018 as a non-tenure-track assistant teaching professor of English and composition.

“Almost immediately upon beginning his employment at Penn State, defendants pressured DePiero to conform to their political viewpoints,” says his federal lawsuit, filed June 14. Those defendants are Penn State, its Board of Trustees, its president, the chancellor of the Penn State at Abington campus and seven other current and former Penn State employees.

The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR) is publicizing and financially supporting DePiero’s case—Leigh Ann O’Neill, FAIR’s legal advocacy managing director, said the exact amount hasn’t been decided. Michael Thad Allen, one of DePiero’s lawyers, said DePiero is also funding the suit.

O’Neill said, “The institutional intolerance that has become so prevalent in the academic space is extremely concerning to us and, you know, we want to champion someone like Zack, who has taken the brave and courageous step to stand up for his rights—and that translates to honoring the rights of his students to engage with … and receive the benefits from a full academic experience.”

FAIR—whose Board of Advisers includes Megyn Kelly, Steven Pinker and Thomas Chatterton Williams—has also been supporting a Black administrator who objected to what she called antiracist “orthodoxy” at California’s De Anza College. The organization also filed an amicus brief in favor of the plaintiffs in the soon-to-be-decided U.S. Supreme Court cases where the plaintiffs are trying to end affirmative action in college admissions.

DePiero, now an assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania’s Northampton Community College, is asking for rulings that the defendants are violating the First Amendment and state and federal civil rights laws. He’s also requesting punitive monetary damages, among other things.

A photo of Zack K. DePiero, a white man with long dark hair and a beard.
Zack K. DePiero

Zack K. DePiero

Penn State at Abington claims to be the most diverse of Penn State’s 24 campuses. DePiero alleges that training sessions that all full-time English and writing faculty members were expected to attend at Abington were problematic.

He alleges that at the end of a meeting in September 2018, one month into his appointment, Liliana Naydan, the English department chair, told faculty members she knew their political affiliations.

“Naydan then loudly expressed concern and disbelief that plaintiff was not a registered Democrat,” the suit alleges.

DePiero said he was a registered Independent. Naydan didn’t return requests for comment Friday.

Naydan also, DePiero alleges, emailed him and two other white faculty members to say, “racist structures are quite real in assessment and elsewhere regardless of the good intentions that teachers and scholars bring to the set-up of those structures. For me, the racism is in the results if the results draw a color line.”

DePiero alleges, “One of the chief race-based principles that defendants sought to enforce concerned student performance.”

“Defendants discriminate twofold on the basis of race,” he alleges. “First, defendants’ bigotry manifests itself in low expectations. They do not expect black or Hispanic students to achieve the same mastery of academic subject matters as other students and therefore insist that deficient performance must be excused. Accurate assessment of abilities, if it happens to show disparate performance among different racial groups, is therefore condemned as ‘racist.’ Second, defendants’ bigotry manifests itself in overt discrimination against students and faculty who do apply consistent standards, especially white faculty.”

“The logic of defendants’ demands required that DePiero also penalize students academically on the basis of race,” he alleges. “If, for example, students from East Asia or the Indian subcontinent excelled over other minority groups (who often had the same, if not lighter skin color), DePiero was asked to penalize them in order to equalize outcomes on the basis of race.”

A Penn State system spokeswoman wrote in emails that “Penn State does not generally comment on pending litigation” and that the university “has repeatedly affirmed its active and ongoing commitment to diversity and equity, and made clear its goal to create an inclusive and respectful environment in which to live, work and study.”

DePiero alleges, “Following the tragic murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the defendants’ ‘antiracist’ activism reached a new fever pitch.” His lawsuit cites emails from later that year, where defendants allegedly wrote that white employees should “Stop talking” and directed writing faculty members to “assure that all students see that white supremacy manifests itself in language and in writing pedagogy.”

“Naydan instructed her writing faculty to teach that white supremacy exists in language itself, and therefore, that the English language itself is ‘racist’ and, furthermore, that white supremacy exists in the teaching of writing of English, and therefore writing teachers are themselves racist white supremacists,” the suit says. She also allegedly “endorsed a Penn State colleague’s view that ‘reverse racism isn’t racism.’”

“Penn State’s bizarre brand of ‘antiracism,’” the suit says, “condemns qualities like ‘objectivity’ as ‘white supremacy,’ and purports to celebrate people of color for being incapable of objective thought. The common denominator at Penn State and among all defendants is the promotion of pejorative stereotypes on the basis of race, which have created a hostile environment not only for DePiero but for all faculty and students.”

In April 2021, DePiero says, the division head of arts and humanities asked him whether he had a problem with Naydan’s actions.

“I coughed everything up to the division supervisor,” DePiero told Inside Higher Ed.

“Before that I had shared concerns with, you know, colleagues,” DePiero said. “I’m not going to give their names. It’s not like I was a mute the whole time.”

Starting that April, DePiero said, he filed the first of what would become four complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. (Allen, DePiero’s lawyer, said those investigations were terminated at the agency level because DePiero sued.)

In September, DePiero filed a bias report with the university’s Affirmative Action Office, his lawsuit says.

Carmen Borges, the associate director of that office, allegedly then told him, “There is a problem with the white race.” Borges didn’t return a request for comment Friday.

DePiero said he then asked questions at an October 2021 training, and Naydan and another defendant then filed a bullying and harassment complaint against him.

He provided Inside Higher Ed his performance review from the following May. The review was positive over all, but, for the “service” component of his job, for which he received a “fair to good” rating, the review noted the October 2021 meeting.

“An investigation into your conduct during a meeting with colleagues on October 18, 2021, by the AAO [Affirmative Action Office] concluded that it was ‘aggressive, disruptive, unprofessional and in opposition to the University’s Values Statement,’” the review said, though DePiero denies behaving like that.

The suit says that “DePiero’s only option to escape the hostile environment was to leave Penn State.”

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