Jury Rejects ‘Difficult' Professor's Race Bias Case

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By Hassan Kanu

June 7 — A college administrator who alleged he wasn't hired to direct an academic support program focused on minority students because he's white had his race discrimination claims rejected by a federal jury ( Peterson v. Univ. of Florida, N.D. Fla., No. 1:14-cv-00220, jury verdict 6/3/16 ).

Dana Peterson alleged his superiors refused to consider him before hiring a less-qualified black woman, even though he previously headed a substantially similar department. The University of Florida said it didn't select Peterson because he is “grating and difficult” and had a history of making racist comments, according to an earlier opinion in the case by Judge Mark Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

According to an employee, Peterson said on one occasion that “black women have babies but black men won't take care of them because most are in jail.” Witnesses reported during a subsequent investigation that Peterson would tell his assistant to stop giving him “BWA,” an acronym he used for “black woman attitude.” The jury found June 3 that an administrator did prevent Peterson from getting the job, but not because he is white.

The case illustrates that a complainant need not “rebut” a defendant's non-discriminatory explanation of an allegedly biased act under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In denying summary judgment to the university, Walker noted that “Peterson need not show that the proffered reasons are false.” Rather, his actual burden was to convince the court “that a jury could reasonably believe his explanation” rather than the university's reasons for the hiring decision.

‘Difficulty Working Constructively' With Others

Peterson previously headed AIM, a race-neutral University of Florida program for freshmen from disadvantaged backgrounds, the court said.

Bernard Mair, a black man, took over AIM in 2009. The university said in its summary judgment motion that co-workers felt Peterson was difficult and that he didn't get along with Mair.

Peterson received a “mostly laudatory” recommendation for a promotion that year but was criticized for “difficulty working constructively” with the Office of Academic Support and Institutional Services, the court said. OASIS “focused its attention on minority students,” Walker wrote.

Later in 2009, an employee complained that Peterson said a provost should “go back to Africon” while simulating a dart gun, the university said. He also admitted using the “N word.”

In 2010, Mair consolidated AIM and OASIS to broaden their scope while maintaining focus on minority students. Peterson felt the merger was a bad idea and made his feelings clear, the court wrote. He alleged that administrators told him the consolidation was spurred by the black alumni association and that he would be perfect for the directorship if he were black.

Peterson noted that the black woman who was selected didn't have academic administration experience. The university countered that her qualifications in other areas compensated for that. She had significant experience counseling women and minorities, served on several “important departmental committees” and won awards for faculty adviser of the year, it said.

Lytle & Barszcz represented Peterson. Greenberg Traurig PA represented the university.

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com