March 26, 2001

Workers Sue UPenn for Racial Discrimination

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African American employees at the University of Pennsylvania are suing the school for its alleged involvement in racial discrimination regarding employment and disciplinary practices dating back to 1975.

The 34 plaintiffs — employed as animal husbandry technicians, supervisors and managers in the University Laboratory Animal Resources Department (ULAR) — request punitive and compensatory damages in excess of $50,000 as well as promotions from the university. They allege in a civil complaint that the institution has “deprive[d] the plaintiffs of equal employment opportunities … because of their race, African American.”

The charges include precluding these employees from advancing to high paying positions, while treating and evaluating African American technicians with different standards of review compared to their non-African American counterparts.

The civil complaint states that “violations of the policies and protocols by researchers and staff puts African American technicians at risk for exposure to dangerous elements and health conditions.”

It adds that the workers have “been the target of illegal and retaliatory disciplinary procedures,” which have been “in retaliation for plaintiffs having complained to [university] officials.”

The alleged violations were first submitted last April to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), who replied that they were “unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes.” The plaintiffs then filed for a lawsuit last month, though the trial is unlikely to begin until after mid-April, pending a decision on the school’s motion for dismissal.

The University of Pennsylvania publicly denies the accusations.

“We consider the allegations to be completely without merit, and the EEOC found them to be without merit as well,” said Phyllis Holtzman, spokesperson for the University of Pennsylvania.

“We will defend vigorously against the lawsuit,” she said.

Bob Bohner, associate university general counsel, declined to comment when asked whether the university might agree to a settlement with the plaintiffs.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Vivienne Crawford, said, “This is not about money … [but] I always think if people are still employed there we should explore the possibility of a settlement.”

“I don’t believe that the EEOC conducted an in-depth investigation,” Crawford said, noting that instead of interviewing all of the plaintiffs, the EEOC examined their written complaints.

Unlike some other discrimination accusations that attracted students’ attention — such as the controversy at Cornell in 1996 over minority program houses — the ULAR lawsuit is not widely talked about on the campus in Philadelphia, according to some students.

“I cannot say that I’ve heard any mention regarding the lawsuit [even though] I’m quite involved in the Penn community,” said Eiji Takizawa, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit, regardless of its outcome, might remind other institutions to ensure equality for its employees and students.

“An institution that is concerned about these issues would be attentive to the situation and monitor the distribution of jobs, ensuring that the way people are treated is standardized,” said Prof. James Turner, director of Africana Studies and Research Center, referring to universities in general.

Cornell University has created measures to ensure equality and diversity, such as the Committee on Diversity, managed jointly by Cornell and its unionized staff.

“Cornell has policies and procedures in place to ensure that complaints are addressed [because] we won’t tolerate discrimination,” said Mary Opperman, vice president of human resources.

Archived article by Peter Lin