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Penn State Professor Files Federal Lawsuit Accusing University of Racial Discrimination

A Penn State faculty member filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday accusing the university of racial discrimination.

Errol Henderson, an associate professor of political science, says that in response to his complaints about racism at Penn State, he was disciplined and denied a promotion to full professor.

A Penn State spokesperson declined comment, saying the university does not comment on pending litigation.

Attorney Stephen Console wrote that as early as 2010, Henderson, who is Black, “formally complained about the racially hostile work environment and Penn State’s poor engagement with individuals, such as himself, who raise concerns about diversity, inclusion and discrimination.”

Henderson, who has been a tenured faculty member at the university since 2002, alleges he raised issues about Penn State’s failures to recruit Black students and faculty as well as “unprofessional and biased” comments made by other faculty members and administrators. The complaints were investigated but no action was taken, Console wrote.

A department head allegedly told Henderson she would not recommend him for tenure because of “purported deficiencies in [his] classroom skills and performance,” and refused to provide funds for his two latest books, actions Henderson says were retaliation for raising complaints.

In January 2019, Henderson wrote an op-ed published in the Daily Collegian titled “Being Black at Penn State,” in which he recounted discriminatory experiences he has had during his time at Penn State.

After its publication, Console wrote, Henderson was informed by Penn State’s Affirmative Action Office that “certain white colleagues had complained that he created a racially hostile work environment for them.”

In May 2019, Henderson received a formal letter of discipline charging him with violating the university’s policy on discrimination and harassment.

According to the lawsuit, an investigation concluded he referred to specific members of the political science department during meetings and other forums when he raised issues “regarding perceived racist actions and practices.” His conduct, the letter said, rose to the level of harassment and creating a hostile work environment.

He was banned from departmental meetings and events and barred from serving on committees for two years, Console wrote. He also was prohibited from teaching any classes for the 2019-20 academic year and was required to take remedial teaching courses.

Henderson also took issue with a June 2020 letter from Penn State President Eric Barron to the community in which Barron wrote about concerns of racism in the university community and a commitment to making changes. Barron subsequently announced a series of initiatives to combat racism.

The concerns and actions in response echoed what Henderson had been expressing for years, Console wrote.

“Instead of supporting Dr. Henderson’s prescient views that are now being championed by the institution, Penn State disciplined him, convicted him of creating a racially hostile work environment, and effectively placed him on the bench for two years and stifled his ability to move into a leadership position at Penn State,” Console wrote.

Henderson’s race and complaints of discrimination were “motivating and/or determinative” factors in “Penn State’s discriminatory and retaliatory treatment of him,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. Middle District Court, accuses Penn State of violating the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, or ethnicity when making contracts and violating the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Henderson is seeking unspecified damages.