New Tenure Outrage at Ithaca College

March 7, 2009

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

By Erin Geismar (Editor in Chief)

Editor’s note: Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the college administration is legally prohibited from commenting on students’ grades or classes. Ithaca College consistently declines to comment on personnel-related issues. Therefore, while The Ithacan feels it is important to tell Margo Ramlal-Nankoe’s story, readers should keep in mind that this story is necessarily one-sided.

The sociology professor who threatened to sue Ithaca College last semester alleging violations of her tenure review process is now accusing the institution of intentionally denying her the right to teach during her terminal semester after being denied tenure last year.

Margo Ramlal-Nankoe, assistant professor of sociology, who has taught at the college for 11 years and been reviewed for tenure twice, said it’s a matter of discrimination, tied to the fact that she believes she was denied tenure based on her political views and teachings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ramlal-Nankoe said she expected to teach three classes this semester but returned in January to find all three had been canceled.

She said she heard through word of mouth in October that the administration was discussing possible problems with her visa, which was supposed to expire in December 2008. She said she didn’t realize the extent of the problem until her classes were removed from HomerConnect during preregistration in November.

“I didn’t know anything about my classes being canceled until students were sending me e-mails saying they couldn’t get into my classes,” Ramlal-Nankoe said.

Ramlal-Nankoe contacted her lawyer, Lynne Bernabei, based in Washington, D.C., and made arrangements to meet with Leslie Lewis, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, in late November. Ramlal-Nankoe said Lewis agreed to meet with her first before she involved her lawyer. At the meeting, Ramlal-Nankoe said Lewis confirmed that she had closed her classes and offered her release time for the spring semester, but she refused.

“If this is my last semester at Ithaca College, then I would like to teach,” she said.

She said they also discussed what Lewis told Ramlal-Nankoe were issues with her visa, an H-1B, used by a nonimmigrant with temporary employment in a specialty field. Ramlal-Nankoe said she explained to the dean that the stipulations of an H-1B allowed her to reclaim time she spent outside of the United States while employed under the visa. Since Ramlal-Nankoe had spent time in Europe, she would be able to reclaim enough time to stay employed until mid-April, two weeks shy of the end of the semester.

Ramlal-Nankoe said Lewis agreed that a colleague could teach the last two weeks of her classes and reopened her classes on Homer.

But it was already too late, Ramlal-Nankoe said. The classes were reopened after most students had already chosen their classes. She said there were only about 10 students signed up among her three classes.

Senior Rachel Reiber took Ramlal-Nankoe’s Introduction to Multicultural Studies class last semester. During winter break, she said, all of Ramlal-Nankoe’s students received an e-mail from Brian Scholten, the college’s registrar, who informed the students in her classes that they could not reach her and that, at that time, they were not sure what would happen with grades.

“The e-mail basically said we can’t get a hold of Margo, we’re going to do something about your grades,” Reiber said.

She said she didn’t receive a grade for the class until just before the start of the spring semester. Ramlal-Nankoe said grades were submitted on her behalf but without her input.

Ramlal-Nankoe spent the winter break in the Netherlands  to extend her visa through the Dutch consulate. Because she was working under time constraints, Ramlal-Nankoe said, she left for the Netherlands before submitting her fall semester grades but intended to submit them abroad. She ran into technical problems the day her grades were due and found she couldn’t access the final papers her students had e-mailed her. Ramlal-Nankoe said she immediately contacted the Office of the Registrar, which informed her that she could submit her grades in paper form when she returned to the United States in January.

She said it wasn’t until she returned to campus Jan. 22 that she knew her classes had been canceled. Ramlal-Nankoe said then it was another seven days until she received official word from Lewis, on Jan. 29, that her classes had been canceled because of low enrollment.

“My classes have always been full,” she said. “I’ve never had underenrollment before.”

Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, associate professor of politics at the college, accompanied Ramlal-Nankoe to the meeting with the dean at Ramlal-Nankoe’s request. She said she could not comment on the specifics but said at the end of last semester she was hopeful Ramlal-Nankoe would end her year on a “high note” — teaching.

“I do understand the dean’s difficult position and administrative concerns,” she said in an e-mail. “But [I] regret that the decision and process eclipsed the other considerations that might have made it possible for Margo to teach this semester.”

Bernabei said the confusion about her client’s visa was of the administration’s own making. She said the college told Ramlal-Nankoe they would not sponsor her to extend her visa until May. She said the college did not realize that Ramlal-

Nankoe would be able to teach in the country until April anyway. Bernabei said it is a “deliberate attempt” to obstruct Ramlal-Nankoe’s work.

“Apparently this is quite a major issue now with professors that don’t yet have their green cards,” Bernabei said. “Colleges are using visa issues against professors in illegal ways.”

Bernabei and Ramlal-Nankoe filed a claim with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, a government agency that deals with labor discrimination cases and with the New York State Human Rights Commission. Bernabei said the commissions would conduct their own investigation to determine if the allegations might be true and to try to settle the dispute between the defendant and complainant before it goes to court. The process could take up to six months.

Ramlal-Nankoe said she believes this is just the latest attempt to push her out of the department. She said this semester she noticed that her photo and small biography had been removed from a bulletin board in the sociology suite that lists all sociology professors.

Judith Barker, professor and chair of the sociology department, said she didn’t know why Ramlal-Nankoe’s name and photo would be removed since she is still a part of the sociology department. She said she intends to replace the information on the bulletin board.

Ramlal-Nankoe said she will continue to hold office hours and remain a presence on campus. She said she has already been asked to guest lecture in a few classes, including Soyinka-Airewele’s last Tuesday.