Three laid-off UF faculty claim discrimination

Published: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 10:36 p.m.

Three University of Florida faculty members who were laid off last year are pursuing discrimination complaints, claiming the layoffs show a pattern of discrimination against foreign-born women.

Following last year's budget cuts, UF laid off eight faculty members. All eight are foreign born and seven are women.

Three who fit into both categories - linguistics and Czech language assistant professor Hana Filip, Swahili language and literature instructor Rose Lugano and linguistics and Vietnamese language assistant professor Andrea Pham - filed complaints against the university.

"It's not random that they pick women and foreign-born faculty to lay off," Pham said.

But Paula Varnes Fussell, interim vice president for human resource services, said the layoffs of foreign-born faculty members are simply the result of cutting positions in language classes, which comprise all but one of the layoffs.

"People weren't selected, positions were selected," she said.

At the time of the cuts, university officials said the language programs were hard hit because they were in low demand and in the debt-ridden College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Officials and instructors with those programs have since provided figures showing demand was high for the classes.

John Biro, head of UF's faculty union, said the pattern in the layoffs showed discrimination whether it is intended or not. State law bans discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap or marital status.

"The law doesn't require it to be intended," Biro said. "It's the consequence that counts."

The complaints come as UF grapples with challenges to the layoffs as it prepares for the possibility that additional budgets cuts will cause more layoffs.

An arbitration hearing is being held today on whether Pham's layoff violates the faculty union contract and should be overturned.

They also come as UF President Bernie Machen continues his push for diversity in the faculty and student body. Earlier this month, Machen announced he was establishing the President's Council on Diversity to review diversity numbers and propose policies to improve them.

The effort is one of many ways that UF has shown its commitment to diversity, Fussell said.

"Obviously, the university takes all precautions to mitigate any pattern of discrimination," she said. "The university takes it very seriously."

UF has increased the number of minority and women faculty members over the past decade. But the percentage of women on the faculty still stands at around 30 percent, even as women make up the majority of students, according to university figures.

National figures show UF has company in having a low percentage of women on its faculty. A 2006 report by the American Academy of University Professors found women comprise about 34 percent of the faculty at similar research universities.

Factors such as family obligations as well as stereotypes about women having such obligations could cause such a low percentage, said John Curtis, the academy's director of research and public policy. Women are also more likely to be part-time faculty and less likely to be tenure-track at research universities, he said.

"It does seem there are barriers" to women gaining faculty jobs and advancing in those jobs, he said.

The three UF faculty members pursuing discrimination charges said they have filed formal complaints with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, a state agency charged with enforcing the state's civil rights laws. Filip said her case was subsequently transferred to the agency's federal equivalent, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission.

Under the law, the agencies will not confirm or deny complaints or investigations unless legal action is taken.

Since Machen started at UF in 2004, he's made minority hiring one of his major goals. The number of black, Hispanic and Asian faculty members have all risen since that time, increasing more than 26 percent.

State budget cuts in the spring led to 14 faculty members being laid off, but seven of those layoffs were rescinded. Five of the seven faculty members who kept their jobs are men.

The remaining layoffs take effect this summer. Filip, who was born in the former Czechoslovakia, is the only non-minority among those being laid off. Pham was born in Vietnam and Lugano was born in Kenya.

Lugano said the cutting of language classes hurts the university's efforts to have an international focus. She thought it was no coincidence that classes taught by foreign-born instructors were the target of cuts.

"It's almost like every time things fail, it's the foreigner who gets hit," she said.

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