Issue Date: June 21, 2010
Chemist Sues College
A $20 million discrimination and breach of contract suit was filed against Columbia College Chicago and four of its administrators in early April by one of its longtime tenured professors, Zafra Lerman. A noted science educator, human rights activist, and familiar face in various American Chemical Society governance positions over the years, Lerman was fired by the college in October 2009 after it accused her of misappropriating grant funds.
At the college, Lerman, a professor of science and public policy, was founder and head of the Institute for Science Education & Science Communication (ISESC). She says she brought innovative science teaching methods to educators in Chicago public schools and also to people on the margins of society, such as prisoners and homeless children. A Columbia College performance evaluation for Lerman dated April 2009 and included as an exhibit in her lawsuit is filled with high praise for her programs and accomplishments and indicates that she “exceeds expectations.”
In the suit, Lerman charges that she was discriminated against because she is Jewish and female. Moreover, as a tenured professor, she claims that she was denied due process in fighting her dismissal. She says she was never given a written reason for her dismissal, as is required by Columbia College’s own guidelines on terminating employment of tenured professors.
A faculty committee that reviewed the college’s decision, Lerman adds, was denied access to key documents and administrators in its investigation of her appeal. The committee agreed that she was not given an appropriate written reason for her termination in accord with the college’s guidelines. The American Association of University Professors has also appealed Lerman’s termination and warned Columbia College that it has violated the terms of her tenure.
Officials at Columbia College have declined to comment on the case. However, the college has responded to her suit with its own detailed court filings. In those documents, the college denies that Lerman was discriminated against because of her religion or gender, that she was denied due process, or that the terms of her tenure were violated. The filing claims that she was given a written reason for her termination.
The response by Columbia College further states that Lerman has misrepresented the findings of the faculty committee that reviewed her termination and that the performance evaluation Lerman cites was a draft. The college also says that at the time of her termination, Lerman was given a choice to resign or be fired.
But Lerman is adamant in her charges against Columbia College. “Nobody at Columbia College was ever treated like I was treated,” she says. On the day of her dismissal, she adds, she was locked out of her office and told not to return to campus. Her pay and benefits were immediately suspended. To this day, she says, she has not been allowed to retrieve even personal belongings.
Other Columbia College tenured professors accused of wrongdoing—especially male and non-Jewish faculty members—have not been treated in such a harsh manner, says Lerman’s attorney, Laurel Bellows of Bellows & Bellows, in Chicago. It is unprecedented, Bellows adds, that a tenured professor at the college would have pay and benefits terminated before a full appeals process had been completed. For example, she claims that pay and benefits for a certain Columbia College professor accused of possessing child pornography on a work computer were continued while his case was under appeal.
Former ACS president E. Ann Nalley says that Columbia College, after firing Lerman, wrongfully held on to funds raised by Lerman for the conference series “Frontiers of Chemical Sciences: Research and Education in the Middle East—A Bridge to Peace,” also called the Malta Conference. Lerman is a leading proponent and organizer of the conference, and Nalley is deputy chair of the organizing committee.
Nalley had to negotiate transfer of the funds from Columbia College to the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry, which now operates the conference, she says. Because of the college’s delays, “we almost had to cancel the Malta Conference” in 2009, Nalley adds. The college denies that it wrongfully retained the funds.
Columbia College “violated every principle of tenure we see in higher education,” says Nalley, a chemistry professor at Cameron University, in Lawton, Okla. “I can’t imagine any situation that wouldn’t at least allow a person to get their things out of their office.”
ISESC brought in millions of dollars in grants for Columbia College, Nalley says. “It’s unbelievable what Zafra accomplished. It will never be duplicated—it was unique, especially for chemistry,” she says. “I can’t imagine what the people at Columbia College were thinking.”
“A lot of the older people have been fired, especially some of the bigger names like Zafra,” Jeffrey Wade, a former assistant to Lerman, says of recent personnel moves at Columbia College. Wade’s position was terminated on May 28. He had been with the college for 30 years. He says ISESC has been restructured and downgraded to a project within the science and math department. Under Lerman’s leadership, the institute had been an entity unto itself at the college.
“Zafra was not the kind of person they wanted around,” says a longtime faculty member about the Columbia College administration. This source, who has requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, says he knew that the faculty who reviewed her dismissal found it unwarranted and that their findings would be disregarded by administrators.
Columbia College “used to be a school with a heart,” the faculty member says. “Now it’s become a more corporate kind of” environment. He specifically blames Columbia College President Warrick L. Carter and Board Chairman Allen M. Turner.
If Turner “gets away with what he did to Zafra,” the faculty member says, “many more will follow.”
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