Academic Freedom Group Decries Black Professor’s ‘Racist’ Firing

Indiana University Northwest
Indiana University Northwest

An association dedicated to defending “academic freedom” in higher education condemned a public university this week for dismissing a Black professor who reported he was a target of systemic racial discrimination—and claims he was fired in retaliation.

In a blistering assessment released Monday, the American Association of University Professors found that Indiana University Northwest unjustly terminated Mark McPhail without “adequate cause” and did not give him due process before the firing.

“The [Indiana University Northwest] administration’s summary actions to suspend Professor McPhail from service, drastically reduce his salary, and, subsequently, dismiss him from his tenured appointment were effected [SIC] in violation of AAUP-recommended standards of academic due process,” the association deemed.

“The racial climate at IUN appears to be unwelcoming to faculty members of color,” the report continued. “In Professor McPhail’s case, it appeared to have been downright hostile, as evidenced by the presence of racist tropes of incompetent, angry, and physically violent Black men in the language used to justify his dismissal."

The association did not provide solutions for the matter, but determined that “shared academic governance cannot thrive at an institution in which the administration disregards crucial institutional policies.”

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McPhail began working at Indiana University Northwest dually as executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and a communications professor in 2015, according to a lawsuit McPhail filed against executive university administrators in 2022 for a breach of contract.

McPhail first filed a complaint to the university’s office of affirmative action and local authorities for being subjected to “racial hostility” in 2016 after bringing administrators’ attention to poor graduation rates of Black students. He also highlighted the disproportionately low number of Black students and faculty members at the school, which was notably located in a predominantly Black area.

“After McPhail criticized the administration for lack of adherence to university policies and held a forum in which he said IU Northwest’s campus climate contributed to racial disparities, Defendants banned him from teaching and reduced his salary by 70 [percent]. When he appealed, Defendants terminated his employment abruptly and without a hearing, substantially damaging if not ending his career,” the lawsuit states.

“I believe that there is significant evidence of hostility toward people of color, in particular people of African descent, at Indiana University Northwest,” McPhail is quoted in the AAUP’s report. “Evidence of this belief is substantial: …the results of the Campus Climate Survey; and my own personal experiences and professional expertise as an African American administrator and recognized scholar of race relations and communication. Furthermore, in numerous conversations with community members, staff, and faculty at IUN, both black and white, these beliefs have been confirmed and substantiated.”

According to the AAUP report, matters continued to worsen after a colleague reported that he said “words to the effect that ‘the only way to end racism is to kill all the white people.’” However, the report found the professor’s statement was misinterpreted as McPhail himself having a desire to kill all white people—a far cry from the truth, according to other colleagues, including one person who was interviewed and described McPhail as “mild and soothing.”

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McPhail was also found to be an “inadequate” professor and blamed for the poor performances of some of his students, was not given the opportunity to improve his status, and was further reprimanded for “attempt[ing] to shift blame to students for [his] own professional shortcomings,” the report quotes School of the Arts Dean David Klamen, who conducted the evaluation.

Vice Chancellor Vicki Román-Lagunas subsequently suspended McPhail from all teaching duties for a semester, drastically reducing his salary. McPhail attempted to appeal the suspension, but three Indiana University Northwest campus officers were later sent to his home in Wisconsin to deliver a trespass warning if he attempted to visit the school during his suspension. Police made another visit a couple of days later with a termination notice because McPhail allegedly had made “a threat of physical violence” after making a phone call to a colleague at the university, his 2022 lawsuit says.

According to the AAUP’s report, administrators said they “had no reasonable alternative but to proceed with dismissal.”

Neither administrators involved in McPhail’s case nor campus police immediately returned The Daily Beast’s requests for comment Monday.

McPhail’s attorney, Chris Stake, told The Daily Beast that the lawsuit against the administrators is currently in “the discovery place,” and unable to provide a comment.

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