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Powell v. Syracuse University

decided: July 13, 1978.


Appeal from dismissal of Title VII civil rights action by minority teacher in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, Edmund Port, Judge. Affirmed.

Moore, Smith and Mansfield, Circuit Judges. Moore, Circuit Judge, concurring.

Author: Smith

SMITH, Circuit Judge:

Geraldine Powell, formerly a visiting assistant professor at the Syracuse University School of Architecture, appeals from a judgment of dismissal entered in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, Edmund Port, Judge. Judge Port found that, contrary to the appellant's contentions, the university had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating Ms. Powell's employment, and was accordingly not in violation of either Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. or 42 U.S.C. § 1981. We find no error in the result reached by the court, and affirm the judgment.


In December, 1973, Ms. Powell was informed by the Dean of the Architecture School that her contract would not be renewed for the 1974-75 academic year. She subsequently filed a claim of discrimination based on race, color, and sex with the New York State Division of Human Rights. After hearings before an agency examiner, the Division of Human Rights dismissed the appellant's complaint for failure to prove that she was terminated from her employment, or denied equal terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of her race, color, or sex.*fn1 While the state complaint was pending, appellant filed a similar complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), receiving a right-to-sue letter on September 10, 1975.*fn2 She subsequently commenced this action within the 90-day period required by statute.*fn3 The case was submitted to the district court upon the transcript of hearings before the New York State Division of Human Rights, stipulated facts and exhibits, and the parties' briefs.*fn4


The findings of basic fact made by the district court are well supported by the record. Accordingly, we accept them for purposes of this appeal, and summarize them below.

Ms. Powell has an extensive academic background. She studied art in high school, but later changed fields, receiving a Registered Nurse's degree from New York University in 1959. In 1971, she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Syracuse University, and later was awarded the Master of Fine Arts degree in Environmental Design. Her master's thesis concerned the relationship of low income housing to black studies in Syracuse.

In April, 1972, appellant was interviewed for a teaching position by the Dean of the Syracuse University School of Architecture. Despite the fact that appellant had not yet earned her Master's degree, did not have any formal training in architecture, and had no teaching experience, she was hired for the academic year 1972-73 at the rank of lecturer (part-time), receiving an annual salary of $3,000.

During the fall semester, 1972, appellant taught one section of the basic design course. Prior to 1975, a detailed student manual for this course did not exist, and each section teacher was free to fashion his own course curriculum after reading the course description in the School of Architecture's annual bulletin, and consulting with the dean and other faculty members teaching the course. Ms. Powell did not receive any criticism from other faculty members during her first semester on the faculty.

In December, 1972, appellant again met with the dean, who expressed an interest in promoting her to a full-time position. The following spring, however, the school's Committee on Appointments, Tenure, and Promotion voted not to promote the appellant, but to permit her to continue teaching part time on the condition that she not teach basic design. Appellant was told that she would not be teaching the design course because of a decrease in enrollment; she was not told about the committee's vote.

The dean, on his own initiative, promoted Ms. Powell to the rank of part-time visiting assistant professor and raised her salary to $5,500 per year. The parties did not enter into a written agreement concerning the 1973-74 school year at that time, and there was subsequently considerable misunderstanding as to appellant's teaching responsibilities. It was finally determined that she would teach architectural rendering,*fn5 serve as advisor to minority students, and deliver five guest lectures on non-western architecture.

In November, 1973, appellant was advised by the dean that her employment status was to be reviewed by the Tenure Committee. Shortly before the Thanksgiving vacation, she was asked to provide the committee with a summary of her Master's thesis, and samples of her students' work. The appellant was under the impression that she had only a couple of days during which to organize her submission, although the dean testified that he told her that the material was not required until December 1, an approximately ten-day period. Appellant submitted those student projects which had been left in the studio during the vacation period, believing that they did not represent the best of her students' work; she also submitted a hand-written summary of her thesis. She did not, however, request a postponement of the committee meeting.

The Tenure Committee met on December 1, 1973 to consider the appellant's continued employment during the 1974-75 school year. The dean, six faculty members, and two students attended the meeting, which focused, in relevant part, on Ms. Powell's written statement, and on an evaluation of her students' projects. The minutes of this meeting indicate that there was some discussion of the appellant's approach to a "black aesthetic," and that a white, female faculty member was permitted to delay committee consideration of her case. In a secret ballot taken at the meeting, eight individuals voted in opposition to, and one voted in favor of, continuing appellant on the architecture faculty.

Those who voted against the appellant testified before the New York State Division of Human Rights that their votes were based on an evaluation of the student work, and on the appellant's background and relative inexperience. They testified further that their attitudes had not been influenced by the appellant's race or sex.

The dean transmitted the results of the committee vote to the appellant, indicating that he believed that the committee thought the appellant unduly "nationalistic."*fn6 The appellant refused to submit a letter of resignation, appealing the committee's decision to the university's Subcommittee on Academic Freedom. The subcommittee did not find any evidence of discrimination, but did believe that there had been procedural irregularities in the disposition of the case. It recommended the reinstatement of the appellant, or alternatively, the payment of compensation, but these suggestions were rejected by the dean.

Ms. Powell received a letter of termination in May, 1974. The architecture school later hired a white male with a master's degree in architecture to teach rendering, and a white female with a Master of Fine Arts degree, to teach basic design. It also hired a white female with a Master's and Doctoral degree in history to teach architectural history.*fn7


On this appeal, Ms. Powell asserts that her dismissal was the product of racial and sexual bias, and hence unlawful. She contends that similarly qualified teachers who were white or male received preferred treatment, and that the justification for her ...

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