A Black Utah State University graduate is suing his alma mater claiming the school inadequately investigated a 2020 racial discrimination complaint against a professor.
The former student accused the instructor of drawing a “coon caricature” of the Haitian-American and accidentally showing it during class.
The school disputes his claim, stating it found no evidence of racial discrimination while confirming there was evidence of hostile environment discrimination.
In his lawsuit, Greg Noel, 32, alleges that during his matriculation through Utah State’s graduate school program, one prominent professor in the marriage and family therapy program not only harassed him but “embarrassed him in front of his peers,” The Salt Lake Tribune reports.
The complaint accuses Utah State of deliberately being indifferent to his reports that his civil rights were being violated based on his race and nationality by a person on the university payroll.
Noel and his lawyers are seeking unspecified financial damages to cover both the cost of his tuition and the anguish he suffered at the hands of the professor.
They are also asking for the letter of reprimand to be placed in the professor’s file.
“I just want accountability for USU to practice what they preach,” he said
Noel’s lawyers detail several instances where Noel felt the teacher negatively alluded to his race and nationality in conversations and used derogatory stereotypes to mandate counseling sessions or face expulsion from the program.
The incident that pushed Noel over was seeing the professor’s stylized sketch of him that resembled post-slavery artwork from the late 19th and early 20th century. The professor, who is unnamed in the lawsuit, was showing a prerecorded training video in class. He did not realize the drawing on his computer screen was being projected on the screen playing the video and that the entire cohort present could see it.
According to the former student, his features were exaggerated, his hair was unruly, his eyes looked angry and his skin was darkened.
“I saw me in the sketch, but I saw this angry-looking version of myself,” Noel said.
Noel alleges he received text messages from classmates saying, “Hahah! Look what he’s doing.” “Why is he drawing you?” and “That’s totally you. So weird.”
The lawsuit claims this was not the first time the professor had singled him out.
In the middle of the fall semester of 2018, Noel had an incident in the USU computer lab. While working on an assignment, the computer he was using crashed. As a result, four pages of his assignment were deleted, causing Noel to curse and push an empty chair. Though the chair did not injure anyone, news of it got back to the professor, who called the graduate student in for a meeting.
During their conference, the professor painted Noel as a violent man and asked if he abused his wife. When the student explained that was not the case and detailed his frustration regarding the lost assignment, the professor countered, “Was that you going full Haitian?” Noel said.
The teacher then told the student he needed to enroll in therapy sessions to “get his anger under control,” and if he did not attend the classes, he would have to leave the program. However, the school has no authority to mandate counseling for students.
Noel, out of fear of being kicked out of the program, signed up for the sessions through the institution.
The teacher continued to monitor him, asking via several emails if he attended a session.
Another incident involved a fall semester 2019 teacher’s performance survey, where two students from Noel’s cohort anonymously left negative reviews for the teacher. To keep peace with the professor, the class collectively submitted an apology statement the following semester. Noel refused to sign it.
Because his name was not listed, Noel believes the professor, assuming he wrote the negative reviews, retaliated against him in class. In January 2020, leading up to the sketch, the then-student said he was ignored during class by the professor.
In March 2020, Noel filed a report with the school’s Office of Equity regarding his experience with the teacher.
Noel said the racial discrimination claim was filed within a month of his graduation, hoping the complaint would not impact his degree.
The investigation into the claim culminated two years later, with the professor being cleared and leaving Noel feeling powerless and unsupported.
“It was one of the most belittling experiences I’ve had. I was under the impression when I filed that someone who experienced racism or discrimination would be taken seriously,” he said before suggesting, “the Office of Equity is just there to protect the interests of the institution.”
USU released a statement saying, “The university followed its discrimination policy, procedures, and process to its conclusion and dedicated significant resources to the matter, both through the grievance process, working with him one-on-one to hear his concerns, and providing supportive measures.”
Noting months after the sketch incident, the professor “vehemently denies any intent to depict complainant” in a racially stereotypical manner.
The school stood by the teacher but admitted the image was offensive and that while racial discrimination cannot be proven, it acquiesced the image was offensive, identifying it as a “coon caricature.”
According to the office, “There IS a preponderance of the evidence to support complainant’s claims of hostile environment discrimination.”