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Black Professor's Suit Says Racial Bias Cost Him His Job

April 28, 1985|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

AZUSA — Three years ago, the chairman of the communication arts department at Azusa Pacific University predicted in a written evaluation that Prof. Robert Foreman would be "recognized as an outstanding teacher soon."

Foreman said he never received another evaluation from the department chairman. But subsequent student evaluations also were highly favorable, he said, and he was enthusiastic as he began this school year--his third at the university.

"I felt after two years that I understood the school, understood the student body, our department and our program better," Foreman said in an interview. "This was the year that I felt I was going to make an even greater contribution to the institution."

Only Full-Time Black

But a few months ago, Foreman, the only full-time black professor at Azusa Pacific, learned that this will be his last year at the university. His one-year contract has not been renewed because of what university officials said was Foreman's inability to teach upper division courses and student complaints regarding his classroom conduct.

Now Foreman has filed a civil lawsuit in Pomona Superior Court against the private Christian university, two of its administrators and the department chairman. The suit charges racial harassment, retaliation and wrongful discharge based on race. It seeks unspecified monetary damages as well as Foreman's reinstatement to his teaching post.

University officials, who said they want to avoid trying the case in the newspapers, said racial discrimination was not a factor in their decision not renew Foreman's contract. A trial date will be set next month.

The case, in which Foreman has gained the support of local branches of both the Urban League and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, has created controversy on the 2,000-student campus. Longtime faculty member Lorin Soderwall, upset over the university's treatment of Foreman, persuaded his wife, attorney Molly MacLeod, to represent Foreman.

"There's a lot of anger in our department and in the school as a whole," said Soderwall, a professor for 21 years in the department of communication arts. "I'm very uneasy because the school tends to be irrational when someone challenges its authority. Already people aren't talking to me. I'll probably be ostracized because of this."

Letters of Support

Foreman said he is perplexed by the whole matter. His last day of teaching--May 31--will come after three years of overwhelmingly positive student evaluations that rank him in the top 5% of the 100-member full-time faculty. In addition, letters of support written by colleagues, which were provided to The Times by MacLeod, describe Foreman as an excellent instructor with a promising future at the university.

"I've never encountered any racial problems in my previous jobs in Iowa and Ohio," said Foreman, 29. "It was the last thing I expected when coming to a melting pot like Southern California."

Foreman said he learned the reasons for the university's action last week, only after a university official showed The Times a letter he plans to send to Foreman. The letter gives eight reasons for Foreman's dismissal, including inconsistent classroom behavior, emotional outbursts directed at students and hostile reaction to the evaluation of his work.

The statement cites no specific incidents to support the allegations. University officials declined to elaborate, except to say that the letter will form the basis for their response to Foreman's lawsuit. That response must be filed with the court by May 5.

Student Problems Cited

"All we can say publicly is that when the facts are known it will be very clear that this university does not discriminate and has not discriminated against Mr. Foreman," said Hank Bode, the university's vice president and treasurer. "Our decision to not renew Mr. Foreman's one-year contract was simply a case of continuing problems students were having with him."

In his lawsuit, Foreman alleges that James Hedges, the communication arts department chairman who recommended dismissal, made racially derisive remarks from the outset of Foreman's employment in the fall of 1982. At a department meeting just before the 1982 school year, the suit alleges, Hedges introduced Foreman to his new colleagues as the university's "token black."

A few weeks later, according to the lawsuit, Hedges suggested that Foreman could supply "the watermelon" as part of the refreshments for a departmental function.

"The remarks really disturbed me," said Soderwall, who overheard both comments. "It singled Bob out, and it was demeaning."

'Very Rational Answer'

Hedges' secretary referred all questions on the case to Bode. Bode said he had discussed the remarks with Hedges and that the department chairman had "a very, very rational answer for the remarks. Unfortunately, I can't give you that answer."

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