When Sharon Edwards, an African American woman, was hired at RIT six years ago, she was told, “The sky is the limit for growth opportunities.” Those words appear in a lawsuit Edwards filed late last year claiming RIT and her boss, Donald Boyd, vice president for Research, limited her growth opportunities due to her race.
Edwards, who has a bachelor’s degree in Business and Accounting and a master’s degree in Management, states she was treated disparately while Caucasian co-workers were routinely promoted.
A complaint filed in federal court details the grievances Edwards says she suffered.
Edwards has been the operation’s coordinator at Venture Creations for six years, the complaint claims, without receiving a sought after promotion. Despite Edwards receiving excellent performance reviews, other workers, it says, were promoted over her to positions she was qualified for. She went to administration members with her concerns, including President Bill Destler, but the complaint says nothing was done to improve her situation.
The complaint claims that Boyd said of positions he was hiring for, “It would be difficult to find a qualified professional AALANA [African American, Latino, or Native American] female.”
Edwards, Boyd and RIT’s Chief Legal Officer Bobby Colón declined to comment when contacted, because the case is still pending litigation. RIT policy, however, says that the school is committed to a diverse working environment and prohibits discrimination.
The suit is one of three discrimination suits filed against RIT in 2010. Only one such suit was filed in the previous five years.
To file suit under federal discrimination laws, a complaint must work its way through the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A little over 93,000 complaints were filed nationwide in 2009 — a 17 percent increase from five years prior. After clearing the EEOC, a civil suit can be filed in federal court. A suit could go to trial, but it is often settled out of court.
Wanda Dansler-Hill, former assistant director of Cultural and Programmatic Initiatives at RIT’s North Star Center, filed suit against RIT in March for discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The center, an RIT organization whose purpose is to promote the success of AALANA students, has since been renamed the Multicultural Center for Academic Success. The dispute seems to hinge on worker’s compensation benefits Dansler-Hill claimed after suffering a back injury.
A court complaint filed under Dansler-Hill’s name says she was discriminated against because she was African American and disabled. It says she was subjected to racial and ethnic slurs, accused of faking her injuries and accused of scamming the Institute. Despite referring to multiple slurs, only one slur — “they always want to take the easy way out,” where “they” refers to African Americans — is repeated in the complaint, and it’s attributed to RIT management in general. The complaint says this was part of a pattern of hostility.
The third suit was filed against RIT in April by Rebecca Housel for discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Housel, a non-tenured instructor in the Department of English, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that had been inoperable at the time of diagnosis. The cancer and its treatment caused a litany of complications, according to a University News release that trumpeted her hiring in 2003, including seizures, partial paralysis and diabetes. Housel’s suit claims that the department chair at the time verbally harassed her regarding her medical condition, handicap, Jewish religion and relationship with male students. They also disagreed about Housel’s classroom performance.
Following her doctor's recommendation, Housel eventually took a medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Five days after announcing her leave, she received a letter from RIT informing her that due to insubordination and lack of willingness to improve her teaching she was terminated from her job.
For Edwards, Dansler-Hill and Housel, and of course for RIT, the outcome of these suits remain unresolved.