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GRANT v. CORNELL UNIVERSITY

March 2, 2000

KEITH GRANT, PLAINTIFF,
V.
CORNELL UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mordue, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Keith Grant, an African American, brings suit against defendant Cornell University, alleging discriminatory denial of tenure and discharge, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the New York State Human Rights Law.*fn1 Presently before the Court is defendant's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff opposes the motion. Oral argument was held in Syracuse, New York on May 17, 1999. For the reasons set forth below, defendant's motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was hired as an assistant professor in the Theater Arts Department of the College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University ("the Department") effective July 1, 1989. The decision to hire plaintiff was approved by the Senior Faculty of the Department, and the Department Chair, Professor Bruce Levitt. The position was for three years; it was not a tenured position. Rather, Cornell had the option to renew plaintiff's appointment for another three years. Near the end of this second three-year period, plaintiff would be reviewed for tenure. If tenure was denied, he would be given a final one-year term of employment. Plaintiff was apparently the first person of color to ever be hired into a tenure-track position within the Department.*fn2

Near the end of his first three-year term, Cornell decided to reappoint plaintiff for the second term. A letter from Levitt, dated March 2, 1992, confirmed the reappointment. The letter also reviewed plaintiff's teaching, artistic work, service and collegiality. Many of the comments were positive, but some were negative. The letter also explicitly set out the criteria plaintiff needed to achieve to qualify for tenure. In essence, the letter stated that

in three years time you will be held to a standard of achieving some level of national recognition. This level of national recognition is a necessary condition for all candidates to be promoted to Associate Professor with indefinite tenure. It is, therefore, incumbent upon you to immediately choose and develop an area of expertise: directing, acting or teaching. In one of these areas you must achieve significant credentials in the next three years. . . . We want to emphasize at this juncture that a national reputation is a necessary condition for promotion.

Def. Ex. D at 4.

To assist plaintiff in the tenure process, the Senior Faculty assigned Professor David Feldshuh to serve as his mentor. In this role, Feldshuh provided advice and counsel, and served as a conduit between plaintiff and the Senior Faculty, who would ultimately vote on whether to recommend plaintiff's tenure.

Feldshuh acted in this capacity from 1992 through 1995. Much of the feedback he provided to plaintiff was negative. For example, in May, 1993, Feldshuh met with plaintiff and provided extensive comments and evaluation; this was followed up with a thorough written letter, to memorialize the meeting. The tone was overwhelmingly negative. Among other things, plaintiff was criticized for grade inflation, poor communication with students and faculty and poor artistic achievement. Feldshuh characterized the review letter as being "less than enthusiastic," citing "problems in all the areas under consideration." Pl.'s Ex. 8 at 5. He concluded,

[m]y perspective . . . after viewing letters and garnering opinions from fellow members of the faculty is that you will need significant improvement in all [] areas of endeavor (national reputation, teaching, collegiality and service) for you to have a strong tenure case.

Id.

Near the end of his second term, in 1995, plaintiff was formally reviewed for tenure. As a result of plaintiff's failure to achieve the requirements he had been apprised of as early as 1992, the Senior Faculty unanimously recommended denial of tenure. Seven members of the Senior Faculty voted; five were the same members who had initially recommended plaintiff's hiring in 1989, and his reappointment in 1992.

Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the negative vote in a 44-page rebuttal letter. During reconsideration, another professor became chair of the Department. Despite the Department's change in leadership, the Senior ...


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