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Penn State forces faculty to grade students by race, harasses whites: ex-professor lawsuit

Second-generation Italian immigrant claims university retaliated when he filed regulatory complaints. Law professor foresees "potentially embarrassing inquiries."

Published: July 3, 2023 11:38pm

Pennsylvania State University officials allegedly pressured a white English professor to grade students according to their race and retaliated against him for filing racial harassment and bias complaints stemming from its enforcement of "antiracism," prompting him to quit.

The state-related institution was not only "deliberately indifferent to the racially hostile environment" for Zack de Piero, but "actively treated De Piero as the problem, suggesting mental health treatment and disciplining him for bullying when he dared to complain," according to de Piero's lawsuit, which alleges violations of Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, First Amendment and Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

The second-generation Italian immigrant was alarmed by the "race-essentialism focus" soon after arriving at Penn State's Abington campus in suburban Philadelphia in 2018, "which he feared would be harmful to his students, a majority of which were from minority backgrounds and ethnicities," according to the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, which is sponsoring the suit.

"If this case goes to discovery, Penn State could face potentially embarrassing inquiries, including emails and depositions" to test de Piero's "blunt to the point of badgering" allegations, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley wrote.

Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers told Just the News twice the university "does not generally comment on pending litigation."

Eight of the dozens of defendants are sued in both their official and individual capacities, including diversity officials, de Piero's supervisor and English Department Chairwoman Liliana Naydan, who "loudly expressed concern and disbelief" at a professional development meeting in de Piero's first several weeks that he "was not a registered Democrat," the suit claims.

Officials including Naydan "instructed De Piero that outcomes alone – regardless of the legitimacy of methods of evaluation, mastery of subject matter or intentions – demonstrate whether a faculty member’s actions are racist or not," he alleges.

Under the banner of "social justice" and "antiracism," they hold black and Hispanic students to lower standards, "insist that deficient performance must be excused" and then practice "overt discrimination against students and faculty who do apply consistent standards," the suit claims. 

Naydan emailed de Piero and two other white faculty six months into his job that "good intentions" cannot overcome the "racist structures" in grading and that racism is responsible if the grades "draw a color line." De Piero said this would require him to also penalize minorities who excelled, such as "students from East Asia or the Indian subcontinent."

The pressure allegedly went beyond the English Department after the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Abington Chancellor Damian Fernandez convened a virtual "conversation on racial climate" that June led by Assistant Vice Provost for Educational Equity Alina Wong, both of whom have since left.

Quoting Wong, de Piero says she instructed faculty with "privileged racial identities" –white and "non-black" – in a breathing exercise to "hold it just just a little longer to feel the pain" that Floyd felt as he suffocated to death, and explicitly endorsed the nationwide looting that followed Floyd's death as "getting what you're due." 

In a campuswide email days later, DEI Director Aneesah Smith ordered whites to "stop being afraid of your own internalized white supremacy," "feel terrible," and both "stop talking" and "hold other white people accountable," the suit claims.

The English language itself is "racist" and teaching its writing makes the instructor a white supremacist by definition, Naydan allegedly told her writing faculty including de Piero. 

She endorsed racism against white colleagues by claiming "reverse racism isn’t racism" and singled out whites in every example of supposed racist comments – "asking students where they are from or inquiring about their native languages" – at mandatory professional development meetings, the suit claims.

Naydan ordered faculty to watch a video titled, "White Teachers Are a Problem" featuring a prominent advocate for so-called labor-based grading, Asao Inoue, who argued that "white English … kills people of color." T

he suit refers to Inoue's presentation at a 2019 composition conference that the very presence of whites, in classrooms and elsewhere, perpetuates white supremacy.

Officials repeatedly subjected faculty to the work of University of North Texas English professor Aja Martinez, a scholar of critical race theory who identifies "objective research" as a "narrative of white privilege," including through a mandatory presentation by Martinez, the suit claims. Inoue gave a Penn State Abington presentation in early 2021 as well.

De Piero told Arts and Humanities Division Head Friederike Baer the trainings constituted racial discrimination, and he filed a racial harassment complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, both in April 2021.

When the behavior continued, de Piero filed a bias report that fall with the campus Affirmative Action Office. Soon after Naydan scheduled another mandatory white privilege training, according to the suit.

Carmen Borges, associate director of the AA office, spurned de Piero's claims in a meeting about his report, telling the professor to keep attending the workshops  "until you get it" and "broaden your perspective." She cited "a problem with the white race" and gave him a phone number for "mental health support," de Piero claims.

He took his concerns public in several media outlets that fall and finally spoke out in yet another training singling out whites on Oct. 18, 2021, which unnerved Naydan and another professor, Grace Lee-Amuzie, who together led the training. 

The duo filed a bullying and harassment complaint against de Piero, and Borges claimed he used "intimidating body language." When he noted the Zoom training was recorded, showing no such thing, Borges responded it was "not appropriate" for de Piero to ask for examples of how he was enacting racism in class. She has denied his "repeated requests" for the specific allegations, he claims.

His own bias report about the "White Teachers Are a Problem" video was dismissed that November, while the following month Borges upheld the complaint by Naydan and Lee-Amuzie. 

He filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in December, followed the next month by another meeting that Baer refused to allow him to record, the suit claims. The resulting "Performance Expectations Notice" said de Piero could be punished for similar "significant disruption" as he caused at the Oct. 18 training.

His annual performance review in June was also lower than usual and again criticized his Oct. 18 behavior as "aggressive, disruptive, unprofessional and in opposition to the University’s Values Statement," suggesting retaliation for his regulatory complaints, de Piero says.

The experiences showed him "I'm unable to stand up for essential principles – for civil rights, for workers' rights, or for educational excellence – without professional penalties being imposed," de Piero wrote in his Aug. 2, 2022, resignation.

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