HOWARD UNIVERSITY has, in the last two years, lost or settled a series of employment discrimination suits brought by whites, women, a black professor with a white wife and a group of black African professors. In each case, the employee alleged that the university fired him or her because of race, sex or national origin, all violations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the D.C. Human Rights Act. In the most recent case, a jury found that the university had discriminated against a white professor of French, Gabrielle Turgeon, when it failed to renew her contract and replaced her with a black professor.
Last week, the university filed a motion in district court asking Judge Aubrey Robinson to overturn the verdict in the Turgeon case, because black colleges have a right to discriminate in a manner that white colleges cannot. While the facts in the Turgeon case, says Howard, "might be sufficient to help establish a prima facie case (of discrimination) where a Black Complainant was claiming racial discrimination in a case involving a white employer, it is legally insufficient when a white teacher claims discrimination in employment by a Black College or University." And even if it is assumed that race was a factor in the dismissal, the university suggests that such a consideration would not be wrong.
Howard alleges that black colleges are subject to a special legal standard. Among the reasons such institutions have for justifying the dismissal, on racial grounds, of white faculty are the following: to provide role models for black students; to create "psycho-socially congenial settings" for black students; and "to contribute to the positive pluralism of the American higher educational system by providing a wider freedom of choice of institutions" to students who, presumably, would prefer to be taught only by members of their own race.
The administration at Howard is understandably chagrined by the loss of so many equal-employment cases. And, as the leading predominantly black university in the country, Howard believes it has a special obligation to hire black faculty and to foster the culture from which so many of its students come. These goals, however, should not be pursued at the expense of qualified faculty members of other races whose training and ability is not in question. Instead of seeking special exemption from the civil rights laws with this heads-I-win-tails-you-lose approach, Howard should look to its own distinguished history of leadership in the struggle against discrimination, and resolve to continue that fight on behalf of all its victims.