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Discrimination lawsuit against University of Idaho will get its day at trial

A University of Idaho College of Law professor sued the university over discrimination in 2019. A judge found sufficient evidence to move it forward to trial.

MOSCOW, Idaho — A University of Idaho College of Law professor will get her day in court on Oct. 11 to argue she was unfairly discriminated against by deans in the school after a judge said the court found sufficient evidence to raise the issue of alleged discrimination.

Shaakirrah Sanders was hired to teach at the College of Law in 2011, becoming the first Black woman and second person of color to achieve becoming a full professor with the College of Law. 

In a July 28 ruling, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said Sanders was able to move forward with her lawsuit to trial and pursue individual action against an interim dean for discrimination and retaliation.

Sanders will now be able to sue former interim dean Jerrold Long and former dean Mark Adams in their individual capacities.

What the court found to be sufficient evidence

In a summary judgment, the Court said they found plenty of evidence that was "more than sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Sanders was subjected to a race- and/or gender-based hostile work environment.” 

This evidence the court is referring to includes what was provided during the discovery period and presented in the statement of facts. The statement alleges Long's attitude towards diversity and bias issues, derogatory responses to Sanders bringing forth the issues, unknowingly recording Sanders during certain occasions, calling her a b----, negatively rating her performances, not interfering with students using racial slurs in class and laughing at a recounting of an incident that showed a student had used the Nazi salute and shouted "Heil Hitler."

Additionally, it said, a couple investigations were opened into Sanders by the University's Office of Civil Rights and Investigations, but were not found to contain sufficient evidence to move forward, due to a student accusing her of being a "Marxist" along with talking about race-related issues in student discussions. Long had complaints with the office, it said, but no investigations were opened into him. The facts statement said that the University paid these investigators $20,000 - $30,000 to investigate Sanders.

She was never given a raise, denied promotions and retaliated against for bringing up diversity issues, the complaint says.

The statement said Sanders now makes $7,534.80 less than her white, male counterparts who retain the same credentials.

Background

In 2019, a federal lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for Idaho by Sanders that alleges unfair discrimination even after the school created a diversity plan.

In the complaint, Sanders repeatedly says Mark Adams, the law school dean who stepped down in 2018, approached white and male professors with the same experience and title Sanders had about serving in certain positions within the school. He never approached Sanders, who expressed interest to him and met all of the qualifications for the new position. 

According to the complaint, when Sanders asked, Adams said he "did not believe she was serious."

A similar position was given to a white man with the same experience as her even though Sanders expressed interest in that position, too, the complaint said.

Additionally, it said, Sanders applied for a stipend she met all the criteria for, but the stipend was given to two professors, both white men, who started the same time as her and were of equal rank.

During a faculty retreat, Sanders asked Adams if he would consider more representation of gender within the college.

"Dean Adams was extremely dismissive of Professor Sanders and her concerns to the point that several faculty members expressed dismay at his treatment of her afterwards," the complaint said.

Other faculty members also expressed the lack of female leadership within the college, and Sanders sent out an email about it in 2017.

Sanders said the dean did not follow up on any other claims of discrimination.

"Instead, she was chastised for not complaining 'forthrightly' enough," the complaint said.

Right before Adams stepped down, a climate and culture review of the College of Law from 2018 documented that leadership was aware of multiple complaints including concerns of “disrespectful, uncivil and abusive communication, gender bias and/or sex discrimination, poor leadership, lack of transparency in process, a perception of favoritism in the allocation of resources and poor morale amongst staff and faculty members'," the complaint said.

It also said the review documented that racial diversity is not valued by the College of Law.

When Jerrold Long stepped in, Sanders claimed in the complaint that he was giving merit raises for excellence. Sanders's performance review from 2019 lists her as an excellent teacher and scholar, the complaint says, but she was not given a merit raise from Long at all.

Long also allegedly held a campus forum that Sanders moderates, but Sanders was never included, the complaint said. During that forum, a student asked to consider genocide as a solution to climate change, which shocked other participants.

Long later sent out an email stating that it is important to engage in difficult conversations and conversations that "might make us uncomfortable," which upset people. He also recorded a discussion Sanders was holding on discrimination, which was not known to her. 

Additionally, the statement of facts filed alleged that Long repeatedly texted the College of Law's Affirmative Action Coordinator about Sanders, saying “no worries. I rant about her somewhat regularly” and “she thinks everyone is looking up to her for salvation.” 

The judgment also said Long allegedly laughed at recounting an incident of a student saying "Heil Hitler."

Later, during a performance review, Long told Sanders “we are not in a space where we feel like it is working” and that things had become “increasingly complicated," the complaint said. In her written review, it said, Long wrote that "Unfortunately, throughout the year it became increasingly apparent that Professor Sanders is uninterested in working with the College administration on many important aspects of her position description."

Sanders asked for follow up on this, to which Long ignored, it said. She received another evaluation from Long alleging the same things, even though she has never had issues before, the complaint said. 

The statement of facts said that former Professor Katherine MacFarlane recently left the college and made clear to others that she was leaving reluctantly due to "Dean Long’s actions."

Sanders maintained to the court that this behavior continued through 2021 until Long was replaced as dean.

Following, Long issued a letter of reprimand to Sanders. She did not receive a raise after that, the complaint said, even though she qualified for one. Long went back to being a law professor within the college, and Johanna Kalb was hired as the current dean. 

Sanders, in addition to the lawsuit, filed a whistleblower claim. This claim was denied as being allowed to go forth, petitioned, and denied once more.

Sanders helped form the University’s Black Faculty Staff Association. She was also selected by faculty to receive the Diversity Award in 2020 for her leadership.

KTVB reached out to the University of Idaho, and was told that they do not comment on pending litigation. Sanders's attorneys said they will not be commenting at this time.

The trial is scheduled for Oct. 11 in Coeur d'Alene.

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