Discrimination: one teacher’s tale

Racist! The word brands with a searing hiss. Despite the number of unapologetic bigots allowed to practice their hate, sometimes public branding is a painful enough experience to force the perpetrator of racial discrimination into the limelight.

But what if the accuser is lying? The nightmarish events that haunted a UTD teaching assistant show how our university system works (or does not work) in racial discrimination suits.

Pat* was a UTD student teacher who suspected one of her students of plagiarizing his final project. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact the student, Pat, who was leaving town to visit her seriously ill father, transferred the matter to her college master. Upon her return, she learned that the student, who neither admitted nor denied cheating, had made a grave charge: That Pat, a Caucasian, was persecuting the student, an African American student, because of racial discrimination. “I was incredibly upset by [the allegations], especially because I try to deal with issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia in my classes,” said Pat.

Pat was told by UTD administration that, since she had no hard proof of plagiarism, she must give the student a grade, which would be an “A” if the project was assumed to be authentic. Pat believes that the student’s charges of racism influenced the decision to not pursue the plagiarism investigation. Pat said, “It’s not that the administration didn’t care about wrong or right, but it seemed to be a secondary concern to appearances. Of course, they don’t want their students to plagiarize, but they don’t want discrimination suits either.”

An angry Pat marched to the McDermott Library and within thirty minutes located the smoking gun – the original work that the student had copied and submitted as his own. The administration then decided to set up a disciplinary hearing against the student.

During the hearing, the student was allowed to berate Pat with questions irrelevant to the plagiarism charges, such as accusing her of not caring about her students since she left on a “vacation” while one of her students was having trouble.

The UTD administration failed to keep Pat informed of the status of the charges against her, never calling or writing to tell her that the student was found guilty of plagiarism and would not graduate. But the saga was not yet over: The student then filed a racial discrimination suit against the university.

Although a civil rights investigator determined that Pat had not acted in a racist manner by uncovering a student who had cheated, the toll on Pat’s life was immense. “I lost confidence in myself as a teacher and as a person,” she said. She was often angrier at the UTD administration than at the student. Besides failing to keep her informed, “they made me feel like I was on trial and not the student who had cheated,” she said.

Pat believes that the administration should try to work with the faculty and teaching assistants to provide guidance for these situations. She now makes it a point to discuss plagiarism with her classes, give all assignments in writing, and keep copies of the work of students who appear to be potential problems. Her relationship with her students has deteriorated since this incident. The student in question had already taken a previous course taught by her, and he frequently visited her during office hours before the charges occurred. Now Pat is leery of all of her students, not knowing if she will get burned again.

False allegations only serve to belittle the actual instances of racism that are a real threat in our universities. The UTD administrators should not fear bad publicity or possible repercussions so much that the cry of “Racist!” leads them to appease a deceitful student.

*Names have been altered to protect those involved.