The former diversity officer at the University of Connecticut’s Graduate School has filed a federal lawsuit against the university, its president and other top administrators, claiming she was targeted because of her race after speaking out about the school’s diversity policies.
Charmane Thurmand was employed as diversity officer for 4 1/2 years, until her constructive discharge in February 2017. A Ph.D. candidate at The Graduate School, Thurmand, who is black, was expelled from the school in May 2017.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, claims university president Susan Herbst and others “instigated the original retaliatory investigation” against Thurmand regarding her husband obtaining a fellowship after she spoke out publicly about the university’s policies. The lawsuit says the university violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The lawsuit says Thurmand, now 30 and living in California, “publicly spoke about UConn’s discriminatory conduct, including that while the university publicly declared it valued diversity, it continued a racist policy of treating individuals of color differently and adversely than their white counterparts.” Specifically, the lawsuit states, Thurmand spoke out against “discriminatory practices and malfeasance that included lack of standards and policies regarding the awarding of diversity scholarships and grants, and discriminatory policies and conduct toward minority students and candidates in The Graduate School.”
The university, according to the lawsuit and Thurmand’s attorney James Brewer, went after Thurman full throttle. Brewer, a Hartford-based solo practitioner, said the university, led by Herbst, “maliciously said Charmane improperly obtained a fellowship for her husband.” Herbst, Provost Mun Choi; Kent Holsinger, dean of The Graduate School; and Scott Jordan, chief financial officer at the university, “without cause, initiated and published false charges of misconduct and thievery, based on plaintiff’s race and color,” the lawsuit said.
The suit alleges an investigation into the matter by Bruce Gelston, an employee in the university’s Office of Audit, Compliance and Ethics, “purposely excluded evidence and witnesses, and made a false finding that plaintiff violated provisions of the employee code, that she deceived Holsinger and illegitimately obtained a fellowship for her husband and thereby committed theft.”
Brewer told the Connecticut Law Tribune on Thursday that Thurmand’s husband, Martinus Evans, received a fellowship as an undergraduate from the university prior to his wife’s involvement with The Graduate School. Evans later came back as a graduate student when his wife was the diversity officer, and was entitled to keep the fellowship status, according to Brewer.
“She did not sneak his name through, and it’s not like no one else knew about this,” Brewer said. ”The fellowships were reviewed by others.”
Brewer noted that Thurmand’s case made statewide news at the time.
“The way they went about it was racist, in my opinion,” he said. “They took her for [a] ride and skewered her. They put her name and face and her husband’s name and face all over the news like they were criminals. They needed to slow down the train until [they] at least have some probable cause by an independent agency, like a court, which they did not. This all happened because she was speaking out.”
The alleged racism was often subtle, the attorney said.
“The attitude they had was: Who are you, as a young African-American woman, to talk about how we should do things right?” Brewer said. “That, to me, is racist.”
The Office of State Ethics is conducting a separate investigation into Thurmand and her alleged role in helping her husband keep his fellowship status.
University spokesperson Michael Enright told the Connecticut Law Tribune on Thursday the school does not comment on pending litigation.
Defendants include Herbst, Choi, Holsinger, Jordan and Gelston. Other defendants are university spokesperson Stephanie Reitz, associate director for university community standards Kimberly Hill, executive director of Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics Carol Carson, ethics enforcement officer in the Office of State Ethics TJ Jones, and deputy enforcement officer Mark Wasielewski. The Law Tribune reached out to all of the defendants, but only Carson and Enright responded.
Carson said the Office of State Ethics is reviewing the lawsuit and will be reaching out to the Office of the Attorney General regarding the suit.
Brewer said Thurmand recently began working for Google’s California-based marketing department. “She moved across country to start a new life,” he said. “That is admirable.”
The lawsuit has 11 counts including racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, retaliation in violation of Title VII, violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages from each defendant, attorney fees, a declaratory judgment against the defendants, and for the university to “publicly acknowledge that it was not able to substantiate any malfeasance by plaintiff.”