A white professor at a predominantly black university in Missouri was fired “because of the color of her skin,” a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.
A Missouri appeals court upheld a jury verdict which found that Harris-Stowe State University (HSSU), a historically black college, discriminated against one of its instructors because she is white.
The trial jury awarded Beverly Wilkins nearly $5 million—including $3.5 million in punitive damages—based on her claim that she was discriminated against in favor of less senior black teachers.
Wilkins, a Caucasian woman from a modest background, was hired as an adjunct professor in the Education Department at Harris-Stowe in St Louis, in 2001.
Then, in 2010, after having successfully risen to full-time instructor as a non-tenure-track professor, Wilkins was unexpectedly fired from her position by the Board of Regents due to alleged “reductions in state funding.”
But her lawsuit, initiated two years ago, tells a different story. In it, she claims that despite having taught at the school for less time than her, two of her black colleagues were allowed to keep their jobs.
Not only that, but following her firing Wilkins was replaced by a new professor and part-time instructor for a total of $23,000—more than what Wilkins was getting paid while she held her post, her lawyer told the Associated Press.
While Wilkins was repeatedly denied promotions, her African American colleague Dr. Latisha Smith—a temporary co-chair of Harris-Stowe’s Teacher Education Department—moved on to become dean of the department after only three years at the school, the suit says.
Furthermore, Smith repeatedly proclaimed in emails her desire to make the education department “blacker” and recommended terminating Wilkins’ employment, according to court filings.
One unnamed black faculty member reportedly complained to top university officials about Smith’s “flagrant prejudice” only to be told to keep quiet if she didn’t want to “jeopardize” her chance at tenure.
The email, which was produced in court, read: “I am floored to know that we have an interim leader that has voiced her prejudice so openly to me and others…this flagrant prejudice should not be tolerated or accepted.”
Harris-Stowe later said it fired Wilkins for her “inappropriate activities, “but failed to elaborate what those activities were. This left the dismissed professor especially astounded, as she had received nothing but positive performance reviews throughout her career.
The University’s defense was further weakened by the fact that, after Wilkins sued for discrimination and retaliation, the court asked the college to preserve Smith’s email account. Instead, in violation of the court order, the Board deleted her emails.
“Rarely have we seen such manifest and open evidence of racial discrimination”, a three-judge panel at the Missouri Court of Appeals said in their ruling.
“The Board unlawfully terminated Wilkins, not due to her competency or ability, but because of the color of her skin,” the appeals court concluded.
Wilkins’ original victory was initially appealed by the university, but it is not clear whether they will challenge again at the Missouri Supreme Court.
“After review, we will evaluate steps the University will need to take in light of the ruling,” the institution said in a statement.