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Jury Awards Black Professor $1 Million in Bias Suit Against College : Courts: He claimed Claremont Graduate School denied him tenure because of his race. The decision will be appealed.

March 29, 1990|CAROL McGRAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A black professor who was denied tenure at the Claremont Graduate School has been awarded more than $1 million by a jury, which determined that he had been discriminated against because of his race.

"The decision is a triumph over the old boys' system," attorney Godfrey Issac, who represented the professor, Reginald Clark, said Wednesday. The lawyer said he believes it is one of the first judgments of its kind regarding tenure of a black professor. Tenure is the coveted lifetime appointment that protects the academic freedom of university faculty members.

Clark, now an instructor at Cal State Fullerton, added:

"I feel good. Claremont is an apartheid institution disguising itself by tokenism hiring. I hope this sends a message throughout the country that this must stop."

The plaintiffs argued in the three-week Los Angeles Superior Court trial that the issues raised by Clark symbolized the maze of discriminatory hurdles that most minority members face when they seek tenure.

They pointed out that, at the time of Clark's dismissal from the 60-year-old Claremont institution, there had never been a tenured black, Asian or Latino professor. The school is part of the Claremont University Center group of colleges.

Attorney Catherine Hagen, who defended Claremont, said the school will appeal the decision because certain information was not allowed into evidence. She added that there were "problems" with the jury instructions but would not elaborate.

There had been a mistrial in the same case last year when three jurors became ill.

Clark, who had previously taught at Chicago State University, had been at Claremont five years when he applied for tenure.

He testified that he had overheard racist remarks while the school's tenure committee was debating his professional future at the school in 1984. He was reviewing a training film in an adjacent room when he heard argumentative voices coming through an air duct.

As he listened, he realized that members of the tenured faculty, who were in closed deliberations, were discussing his promotion.

Clark testified that he heard such remarks as: "I don't know if I want to work on a permanent basis with a black man"; "We don't have to worry, we are a private college, we are not under obligation to have any (minorities)" and "White people have rights too."

The defendants acknowledged in court testimony that the latter statement was made, but they denied the others.

Claremont President John MacGuire, who said he had been one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s freedom riders in the 1960s and was a board member of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, testified that he had conducted an investigation of the racism charges.

He said that the words uttered by one of the instructors were "inappropriate" and that the individual had been reprimanded.

However, MacGuire contended that the school had not discriminated against Clark in refusing him tenure. A subcommittee of faculty members voted 5 to 4 in favor of tenure. But the full tenure committee voted 4 to 1 against it.

The school argued that the reason Clark was denied a permanent post was because the professor had a meager publication record, an important part of the tenure process.

School officials testified also that a survey was sent to 100 of Clark's students and 12 of the 50 that were returned contained remarks critical of him.

Clark needed to have several articles published in professional journals--articles that are printed only after rigorous review by a panel of peer scholars. If he had had those, he might have been granted tenure, Hagen argued.

But the plaintiffs countered that Clark was considered an expert on multicultural education and had received national attention for his research on black children's struggles in the education system. He is author of "Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail," published by the University of Chicago Press.

"The book was a trailblazer in its field," Issac told the jury. "He is a man of vision."

The jury, after two days of deliberation, voted 9 to 3 to award Clark $1 million in compensatory damages for the loss of salary and for emotional distress.

It voted to award punitive damages also. In that second phase of the trial, Issac asked the jury to "send a message to Claremont . . . that people should be judged on who they are and not on the color of their face."

A school accountant testified that the graduate school had $79 million in assets and $10 million in liabilities. Hagen told the jury that "$1 million is a whole lot for the school. You already sent them a message, and they have been humbled and saddened by it. Please don't punish them any more."

The jurors spent another 45 minutes deliberating and then voted 11 to 1 to award Clark an additional $16,237 in punitive damages--the amount Claremont had in its cash account. They said later in interviews that they heeded Hagen's warning that the school would have to raise students' tuition to pay for any punitive damages. Such awards are not not covered by any liability insurance that the school may hold.

"We didn't want to increase tuitions for students," jury foreman Sean Reaney, a 23-year-old airline flight attendant, said. "So we thought that, by draining the college's active cash account, they would get the message."

Issac said that Clark's real desire would have been to have his job at Claremont back.

"But, in our system, unfortunately, only monetary judgments can be won," the lawyer said.

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