August 23, 2019
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Former employee sues USM, alleging racism tied to wrongful termination

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The University of Southern Maine

PORTLAND, Maine — The former head of the University of Southern Maine’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs is suing the University of Maine System, claiming that it wrongfully fired her in 2015 following a complaint that she created a hostile work environment and aggressively pushed her views on race and gender onto students and staff.

In a federal lawsuit, Susan Hamilton alleges that the university botched an investigation into the complaint, violating her civil rights and rights to due process under a labor agreement before firing her. She called the finding that she had discriminated against students “absurd” and “baseless.”

Her termination “clearly illustrates why racism, and white privilege, is so prevalent at USM,” Hamilton states in a complaint filed in a Portland court last week. And it is out of this alleged milieu of discrimination that the incident leading to Hamilton’s firing sprung, according to the suit.

Hamilton, who is biracial and a Penobscot tribal member, headed the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs since 2005, and became its full-time coordinator in 2009, according to the court filing. In this position she ran programs aimed to combatting racism and managed the student Multicultural Center.

Under Hamilton, the center became popular among students but also attracted persistent harassment and intimidation, the suit states. A group of white, male student senators allegedly took to pacing back and forth in front of the campus building where it is housed and making pejorative comments about students who spent time at the center.

At one point the harassment became so severe that it “resulted in a Russian female student telling Hamilton of her intent to hang herself,” according to the suit.

On Oct. 21, 2015, students at the center told Hamilton that student senators had again been pacing in front of the building, the complaint states. Hamilton confronted two student senators in their nearby office about the pacing, but they denied knowing anything about it and told her they were offended. One of these students, who is not named in the suit, had previously sent an email to a Muslim student accusing her of being a terrorist because she wore a hijab, the complaint states.

Following this exchange Hamilton returned to the Multicultural Center and had a “spirited” conversation about racism and white privilege with some students there, including a social work student who was interning with her at the center, according to the suit.

A couple weeks later, Hamilton was informed that the social work intern had filed a formal complaint against her claiming “that a hostile work environment exists in the workplace,” the suit states.

In investigating this complaint, Hamilton claims that the university repeatedly failed to honor her rights under a collective bargaining agreement and violated her civil rights. She claims the violations include never providing her with a written complaint signed by the social work student, not offering specific allegations, not assigning an appropriately trained investigator to the case, and later expanding the complaint to claim that Hamilton was aggressive ”in pushing her views on race and gender.”

Hamilton has a learning disability and during a three hour interview a USM investigator used it to disadvantage her by asking leading and confusing questions, the suit claims. The investigator later denied knowing that Hamilton has a learning disability, according to the filing.

The investigator eventually found that Hamilton had “engaged in both discriminatory (race and gender) and non-discriminatory harassment.”

She was eventually fired as a result of the finding and is suing for monetary damages. In addition to the University of Maine System the suit names as defendants USM President Glenn Cummings and Sally Dobres, the school’s equity and compliance officer.
The University of Maine System has not been served a copy of the lawsuit and therefore cannot comment, said spokesman Dan Demeritt. He added that the school is unlikely to comment in the future because the suit is personnel matter.

 



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