Northeastern State University Seminary Hall
Seminary Hall at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma.

Judge Okays Discrimination Trial for Fired NSU Professor

Christina Rose

In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, Judge Ronald White issued a summary judgment in favor of Dr. Leslie Hannah, who filed a discrimination complaint against Northeastern State University, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The judgment, issued on February 5, states that Hannah has sufficient evidence to take his case to trial.

In response to the judgment, NSU filed an appeal with the 10th Circuit Court. According to Hannah, “The 10th Circuit sent the decision back to the Muskogee Court (Eastern District) for mediation, however NSU does not seem to be taking the situation seriously and has not negotiated in any of the three mediations in a meaningful way. I am not sure what is going to happen next,” Hannah said.

Hannah, Cherokee, was hired as a professor in 2009 and rose quickly through the ranks to the position of Chair of the Language and Literature Department. Other professors reacted to his promotion by posting discriminatory and belittling comments about Hannah and his Native background, such as Brian Hammer Cowlishaw’s Facebook posting, “There will be an ‘election’ the first week of February. They’re making a f*cking indian chair.”

The three professors, including Dr. Brian Cowlishaw, his wife Dr. Bridget Cowlishaw, and Dr. Shelton, were reprimanded by NSU for that and other similar Facebook comments. Dr. Bridget Cowlishaw entered a settlement agreement with NSU and resigned.

According to the judge, the professors’ comments “were interpretable as racist references.” At the time of the postings, NSU reprimanded the professors for the posts. However, the judge wrote there was continued evidence of hostility, “whether it was motivated by race or other factors, (it) remained prevalent within the department… even after Hannah resigned as Chair. Then Cowlishaw and Shelton voted on Hannah’s tenure application.”

While Judge White dismissed some of Hannah’s claims, he allowed the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ruling on discrimination. The judge based his ruling on the fact that the school had responded appropriately to the Facebook attacks, but thought it was unreasonable to assume the professors could vote without prejudice on Hannah’s tenure and promotion.

In the summary judgment, the judge states, “Dr. Hannah is a member of a protected class. Dr. Hannah engaged in protected opposition to discrimination. Dr. Hannah suffered an adverse employment action—denial of his tenure and promotion application followed by his termination… At the same time Dr. Hannah was denied tenure, Department Chair Shelburne, a white man, was granted tenure.”

For NSU to allow Cowlishaw and Shelton, after being disciplined for discrimination, to vote on Hannah’s tenure application was questionable enough to take the case to a jury, the judge wrote.

NSU’s response claimed Cowlishaw’s and Shelton’s vote did not have any effect on the outcome of Hannah’s tenure application. The judge responded, “The court is not convinced. It is entirely plausible that Dr. Cowlishaw and Dr. Shelton influenced others’ opinions of Dr. Hannah before and during the tenure application process… Whether the Dean held any animosity toward Dr. Hannah and whether it was racially motivated are questions for the jury.”

NSU claimed that the Facebook posts were two years before Hannah’s tenure application and that it was unlikely to have affected the attitudes of those who voted against Hannah’s tenure. The court said, “Two years is not a significant amount of time. It is more than plausible and rather likely that after two years, Dr. Cowlishaw and Dr. Shelton still held some animosity toward Dr. Hannah for his reporting their Facebook posts, which resulted in their reprimands and possibly in the resignation of Dr. Cowlishaw’s wife.” The court believes there was evidence of continued hostility and stated that if Cowlishaw and Shelton had been removed from the tenure application process, “this would be a different case.”

Further, the court acknowledged that NSU took appropriate actions at the time of the Facebook postings, but that the university did not attempt to end “any remaining hostility, whatever its origin thereafter.” The court stated a jury will have to decide whether or not the remaining hostility was racially motivated. The court also stated that Hannah had provided enough evidence to establish that his constitutional rights had been violated.

Anthony L. Allen, Hannah’s attorney wrote in an email, “We get to go to trial against NSU—only for Title VII—but that is enough.”

RELATED: Allegations of Racism at NSU Recall Indian Education’s Darker Days

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andre's picture
Submitted by andre on
Let's not forget this country was founded on racism and brutality. All of which we continue to see proudly on display today. These people will always have a hatred for the wo/man of color in their hearts.. History has shown this to be true.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Where is the impetus for Native students to better themselves? You can apparently go to the highest reaches of education and STILL encounter racist assholes! I thought education was supposed to be a barrier to closed-minded thinking? I thought the educated were supposed to be bastions of liberalism? Aren't the educated among us supposed to be the "enlightened ones?" ____________________________________________________________ This just proves to me that racism is a disease that affects everyone. Yes, EVERYONE! You can't be discriminated against for generations upon generations and NOT begin to hate (or at least dislike) those responsible.