A Black USU grad says a professor drew a racist cartoon of him. Now he’s suing

Mar 21, 2023, 9:32 PM

LOGAN, Utah — Gregory Noel was sitting in a Utah State University class in January 2020 when he says his professor drew a “racially inflammatory ‘coon’ caricature” of him that was visible to the students.

A coon is an insulting caricature portraying Black people as “lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate buffoon(s),” according to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University.

And this one “depicted an individual with dark skin, a hairstyle like (Gregory’s), and exaggerated features,” according to a lawsuit filed Monday in district court against the school.

Noel, a Black Haitian American student who was in the university’s graduate Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the time of the incident, reported the caricature to the school’s Office of Equity, but was repeatedly “second-guessed and unaided” throughout the investigation, the suit states.

The Office of Equity concluded that the drawing created a hostile environment for Noel, and the professor, who is not named in the lawsuit, eventually received a written reprimand. But several months later, a separate committee withdrew that reprimand, according to the suit.

Now, Noel is alleging institutional betrayal, exacerbation of trauma and deliberate indifference under Title VI, the lawsuit shows.

His suit seeks unspecified compensatory and special damages, including but not limited to medical and therapy expenses, as well as the cost of tuition and other school fees during the semesters in question.

It also asks that USU reinstates the professor’s written reprimand.

“The Office of Equity made every excuse for, gave greater credence to and supported (the professor) in every way … throughout the investigation,” the lawsuit states. “(But) the Office of Equity refused to interview Greg’s witnesses and then refused to aid Greg in ensuring their presence at the hearing.”

In a statement issued Monday, USU officials wrote that the school’s goal in all potential discrimination cases is to address the behavior and provide an equitable process for all parties.

The university followed its nondiscrimination procedures, the statement continues, dedicating “significant” resources to the matter and working with Noel one-on-one to hear his concerns.

“When plaintiff attorneys seek to use the media to litigate their cases and reach out to the media before the university even receives notice of a lawsuit, the public should be aware that they are getting one set of facts from one perspective,” university officials wrote.

Reprimand issued, then withdrawn

The caricature incident wasn’t the first time Noel faced racism from that particular professor, according to the lawsuit. In October 2018, Noel was working in a private study room when his computer lost four pages of an assignment. In frustration, he used some profane words and pushed a rolling chair aside. The chair did not collide with anything and no one else was in the room, the suit states.

But days later, the professor asked Noel to meet with him and a second professor to discuss the incident. They both expressed concern that Noel would be violent toward others or to his wife, and the first professor asked Noel, “Was that (incident) you going full Haitian?” the lawsuit claims.

The first professor also told Noel that, in order to stay in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program, he’d be required to get anger management therapy, the suit continues. Noel agreed and sought therapy from USU’s Counseling and Psychological Services, but the professor later emailed him about seeking additional services outside of the school, according to the lawsuit.

Following the January 2020 caricature incident, Noel filed a written report against the professor with USU’s Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity office, also called the Office of Equity, in March 2020.

During the ensuing investigation, USU interviewed only witnesses identified by the professor and none of the witnesses identified by Noel, the lawsuit alleges.

“In his response, Greg made clear that the Office of Equity’s treatment of him during the investigation was discriminatory against him as a Black complainant of racial discrimination and was unfairly beneficial to USU’s personnel,” it states.

After the investigation and two hearings, the Office of Equity issued its final report in August 2020, finding a “preponderance of evidence” that the professor drew an offensive caricature of Noel and that the image was visible to students.

“Therefore, the Office of Equity finds that respondent subjected complainant to unwelcome conduct based on his race and/or color,” the report found. The office also concluded that “there is a preponderance of the evidence that this image created a hostile environment for complainant.”

The Office of Equity recommended that the professor receive a written reprimand, but USU “refused” to update Noel on the matter for a year, claiming that any communication with him might give the appearance of bias, according to the lawsuit. This was despite then-Provost Frank Galey having personal discussions about the matter with the professor, it continues.

“After these personal discussions and despite the Office of Equity’s findings, USU’s provost determined that the written reprimand against (the professor) was not warranted,” the suit states.

The reprimand was issued on January 14, 2022, and withdrawn from the professor’s personnel file on May 5, 2022, according to the lawsuit.

In a memorandum to the professor dated May 5, 2022, Galey wrote that, in a review of the reprimand requested by the professor, the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee concluded that the written reprimand was unjust.

The committee “took issue with, among other things, the Office of Equity’s finding that it was more likely than not … that your drawing a caricature of a Black student was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the condition of the student’s education and create an abusive learning environment,” Galey wrote in the memorandum. “While I disagree with the panel’s conclusion, I will respect and honor the process ….”

USU noted in Monday’s statement that when the Office of Equity finds a policy violation, sanctioning for a faculty member falls under the faculty code, not the Office of Equity, and faculty members may request a review of a reprimand by the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee. The committee’s decision is final under the faculty code, according to the statement.

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A Black USU grad says a professor drew a racist cartoon of him. Now he’s suing