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A black Duquesne law professor claims a high-ranking university official denied him fair consideration for the law school's deanship in 2004 -- and called him a "token" to boot.

In a joint state and federal racial-discrimination complaint, tenured law professor Kellen McClendon alleges that Duquesne President Charles Dougherty defended the label, which was used by Provost Ralph Pearson. In doing so, the complaint argues, Dougherty continued a pattern of discriminatory behavior spanning more than five years. 

The university does not dispute that Pearson referred to McClendon as a "token." But in a formal response filed in May, it adamantly denies charges of racial discrimination. The school argues that the provost's comments were "taken out of context" and that school officials "at all times treated [McClendon] lawfully."

Since May 2009, two other law-school employees have filed complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

City Paper, which recently obtained McClendon's complaint, first reported faculty members' concerns about discrimination complaints in May. Early that month, Faculty Senate President Paula Witt-Enderby e-mailed Dougherty and Pearson that faculty members were worried about a series of such complaints. Dougherty responded by e-mailing the entire university's staff. 

"I presume that among the claims you are referencing are those made by three individuals from the School of Law," he wrote on May 4. Dougherty assured staff that "It is fully expected [the complaints] will be proven groundless."

McClendon's complaint dates to the fall semester of 2004. At the time, the law school's dean position was vacant, and a seven-member search committee, chaired by Pearson, was created to review applicants. On Oct. 29, 2004, the complaint states, McClendon applied for the position: Less than a month later, Pearson informed McClendon that he did not advance beyond the application-review stage to the next step, where candidates are interviewed by law-school faculty.

According to the complaint, on Nov. 11, Pearson voted with a 4-3 majority to reject McClendon's candidacy. A day later, the complaint states, the provost defended his vote to another search-committee member, law professor Ronald Ricci. Pearson told Ricci "he would not advance a 'token' for further consideration," the complaint asserts.

McClendon, a Duquesne law professor since 1989, declined comment for this story. But his attorney, David Millstein -- himself a former adjunct law professor at Duquesne -- contends that, "When you refer to an African-American man as a 'token,' it's pretty clear it's a racist remark."

"As a result of the blatant racism expressed by Pearson, coupled with the fact that Pearson cast his vote in a 4-3 vote to deny [McClendon] further consideration as a viable candidate," the complaint states, "[McClendon] has been denied the opportunity for advancement in his employment based upon racial intolerance."

"Duquesne flatly denies professor McClendon's allegations and intends to vigorously defend the matter," says Martha Hartle Munsch, the school's attorney. "I'm confident the university will prevail."

Pearson did not return phone calls for comment, but Duquesne's formal response argues that McClendon "was not and is not qualified for the position." Further, Duquesne claims Ricci was the one who made "unprofessional, unethical, and racist" comments.

After the November vote, Ricci "suggested to Provost Pearson that [McClendon] should be given a courtesy interview because he was a minority candidate and [Duquesne] has a commitment to diversity," the university's response asserts. "Provost Pearson quite properly stated in response ... that he was not going to use [McClendon] as a token minority candidate for the sake of appearances."

Ricci, who voted in the minority of the 4-3 tally, denies the university's account. Speaking specifically to the "token" remark, "I have never understood the university's explanation for the definition of the word," he tells CP. "They must have a different perception of what the word connotes.

"Within the African-American community, that is one of those words you would like to avoid," Ricci continues. "It's not an attractive word to me." 

But both sides agree that, at a March 20, 2009, meeting of law faculty, Dougherty asserted that the word "token" is "not a racial epithet," as the school's response puts it.

Duquesne also argues that McClendon's complaint should be dismissed because he waited so long to lodge it. McClendon first filed a complaint in September 2009 -- nearly five years after the alleged incident. State rules require complaints to be filed "within 180 days after the alleged act of discrimination."

Millstein counters that the complaint is a result of ongoing discriminatory behavior. For example, the complaint notes, when the dean position again became vacant in December 2008, the university did not appoint Associate Dean Vanessa Browne-Barbour, an African-American woman, to the interim dean position, even though "it is the stated practice and policy" of Duquesne to do so. 

That decision has, in fact, prompted a complaint all its own. In 2009, Browne-Barbour filed a PHRC complaint charging that "she had not been selected to serve as Interim Dean ... because of her sex and race." 

The university also acknowledges being served with a third PHRC complaint in March filed by Alice Stewart, a law-school administrator who alleges unequal pay based on gender. PHRC spokesperson Shannon Powers confirms that all three complaints remain open investigations. The federal agency does not comment on pending investigations, according to EEOC spokesperson Christine Saah Nazer.

McClendon's complaint, meanwhile, faults Dougherty for appointing Pearson to chair yet another law-dean search committee last year, "knowing full well that Pearson has made racially charged remarks" previously. McClendon considered applying for the dean position again, the complaint says, but "realized it would be futile ... and did not do so."

Reappointing Pearson to handle the search, says Millstein, is "a continuing act of racism all by itself."

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