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Former Calvin University professor denied tenure and terminated alleges racial discrimination and retaliation

When Nalova Westbrook interviewed for an assistant professorship in the education department at Calvin University, she says her then-future colleagues referenced a former professor who was no longer at Calvin.

Westbrook did not think much of it at the time. But upon starting the job at the Christian university in Michigan in 2012, she says the references to the former professor, Denise Isom, continued. She asked around to find out who this person was, only to learn that Isom, an African American woman, departed Calvin in 2008 after being denied permission to attend a Black Baptist church. Calvin rules at the time required faculty to join a Christian Reformed Church or another denomination “in ecclesiastical fellowship” with the CRC, a Dutch-rooted, predominantly white institution.

When a senior white male professor observed her teach in 2014, Westbrook recalls, he told her she “should be like Denise.”

“I was just starting out my career, I’d been recruited directly from Penn State, my absolute first job, and I’m being compared to this previous professor clearly simply because we’re both Black and we’re both women,” Westbrook says. “It made it very awkward to start out interacting with the majority of my colleagues who saw me through the lens of Dr. Isom because of race and gender.”

While Westbrook says the references to Isom abated after she complained to the college’s chief diversity administrator, relations with some of her colleagues remained strained. In 2018, the majority of her colleagues in the education department recommended she be denied tenure.

The 2018 letter communicating the department-level recommendation against reappointment with tenure praises Westbrook’s scholarship as meeting Calvin’s standards, but describes concerns about her service to the department and the college, noting her “sporadic attendance” and “silent presence” during departmental meetings, as well as concerns about her teaching.

The letter, authored by education department chair Marj Terpstra and provided to Inside Higher Ed by Westbrook along with many other documents from her personnel file, says that former colleagues complained of her “lack of responsiveness” to their feedback about her teaching. The letter cites mixed evaluations from students, with those from one class section writing primarily positive things and those in another section saying they felt intimidated by her.

“There still seems to be a disconnect between Professor Westbrook and some of her students and her student evaluation scores are lower than the Education Department and Calvin College faculty averages, both of which admittedly set a high bar,” the letter says.

Faculty members who observed Westbrook “also reported varied interactions with students. Some noted her supportive comments and ability to weave in AAVE [African American Vernacular English], French, and professional language in her responses to students,” the letter states.

“On the other hand, some noted her abrupt responses and stiff and impersonal interactions with students. Some faculty members also noted that Professor Westbrook brings variation to the classroom and that sometimes creates dissonance for students who are accustomed to professors of similar backgrounds and ways of being.”

That last sentence — about students being “accustomed to professors of similar backgrounds and ways of being” — stood out to Westbrook.

“I don’t know how anyone can possibly interpret that sentence other than from a racialized, ethnic, discriminatory point of view,” she says. “In other words, what the chair wrote in summarizing the majority of my former tenured colleagues’ opinions was that my Black American and West African background makes certain Calvin education students uncomfortable for whatever reason, and because of that the department is not interested in having me as one of their permanent colleagues.”

The story of Westbrook’s career at Calvin after the initial recommendation of denial of tenure is not straightforward. She subsequently filed complaints, internally within the college and to external bodies, alleging discrimination and violations of Calvin procedures. She was twice accused of professional misconduct, and the second of two misconduct investigations, relating to deletion of materials from a university-issued laptop, ended in her termination from Calvin in April of this year.

Westbrook says there were no nonwhite faculty members who were involved in decisions about her tenure denial and termination. She sees her case as boiling down to issues of racial discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination.

Calvin’s faculty is overwhelmingly white: of the university’s 232 full-time faculty, 89.6 percent identify as white, 5.6 percent as Asian, 1.7 percent as Hispanic, 1.2 percent as Black and 0.8 percent as multiracial.

Mary Ann Sabo, a public relations professional serving as a spokeswoman for Calvin, said, “The racial makeup of Calvin University’s faculty is influenced by the demographics of the Christian Reformed Church, which chartered it and provides continued ministerial guidance.”

Sabo added that Calvin “is committed to hiring faculty and staff who reflect the diversity of our community and our country and who affirm and live out our deeply rooted Reformed perspective in every area of their personal and professional lives,” a commitment reflected in a university plan for racial justice and cross-cultural engagement.

The university declined interview requests about Westbrook’s case through Sabo, principal of a Grand Rapids public relations firm. Sabo issued a statement as well as a letter from Calvin administrators about Westbrook’s claims.

“Calvin University made every effort to resolve Dr. Westbrook’s concerns, including participating in a facilitated mediation in good faith that we would be able to reach a fair resolution — and we assumed the same was true for her,” the statement says. “The parties have entered a legally binding contract that precludes us from addressing the specific allegations she has made. Unlike Dr. Westbrook, we intend to abide by that contract, and we are disappointed by her choice to breach our contract.”

“Suffice it to say, however, the University strongly disagrees with Dr. Westbrook’s allegations, and we believe her claims lack any merit whatsoever.”

‘Disparaging Comments and Actions’

In a letter appealing her colleagues’ negative recommendation, Westbrook defended her record as a teacher, writing that her evaluations had “improved significantly” since her last reappointment and that she had “received positive feedback from alumni who look back at my classes and recognize later how much they have learned.”

While Westbrook’s allegations of discrimination are focused on her treatment by university colleagues and administrators, research has shown that student evaluations of faculty of color are often influenced by the racial biases of students. Many studies have documented biases against women and racial minority faculty in student course evaluations.

Westbrook also strongly disputed the idea that she had not been receptive to feedback from fellow faculty members.

“For six years I have been under constant critique from members of the department, with repeated reminders that some do not expect that I will earn their support for tenure, and I feel that the evidence shows I have actually responded very favorably,” she wrote. “In fact, I was the one who initiated having tenured colleagues observe me teach. I have made a number of adjustments in light of colleague remarks on my teaching.”

Feeling under constant critique by departmental members is a theme in Westbrook’s appeal letter. While she wrote that she only missed department meetings when they conflicted with Michigan Department of Education professional development meetings she attended at local K-12 schools, she acknowledged a reluctance to participate actively in departmental affairs.

“Calvin College, and our department along with it, frequently talks about ‘shalom’ and understanding diversity,” Westbrook wrote. “This has not been my experience. Instead of the faculty creating shalom, I have frequently been made to feel defensive and uncomfortable within my department, particularly at department meetings and activities.”

In addition to describing the references to Isom, the Black professor who left Calvin, Westbrook wrote that during her six years at the university, “I have been subjected to ongoing comments designed to put me in my place. In particular, as I have been under pressure these past few years regarding the department’s reluctance to recommend me for tenure, there is a tenured member in the department who has repeatedly made statements in my presence about having the power to influence who gets tenure and who does not … In a very recent instance, this tenured member remarked at a department meeting how only two of the three currently untenured members would get tenure. Another tenured faculty member quickly corrected this tenured member by saying ‘and Nalo’, [Westbrook’s nickname] too.’ The tenured member who made the initial, exclusionary remark fell silent. I recognized that these comments were designed to make me feel excluded and powerless and my reaction to being thus positioned is to withdraw.”

Westbrook also wrote that her colleagues had in some instances undermined her relationships with students. For example, she wrote, “A student complained to one of my tenured colleagues about having had a long exam that the student could not finish on time. Instead of sharing the concerns with me directly to enable me to address the situation with the student or advising the student to meet with me about the concerns, my colleague proceeded to tell the student to ask the entire class how they felt about the midterm. This led to a series of discussions about my teaching among the whole class and undermined my relationship with the students in the class. This same tenured colleague subsequently told me to my face that I was ‘broken.’ Another tenured member proceeded to have a focus group meeting with students in the same class about my teaching at the end of the semester. These types of unprofessional and unsupportive interactions over the years have led me to be very apprehensive about participating in department activities where I may be vulnerable to other types of disparaging comments and actions.”

Westbrook also filed a complaint about these alleged comments and actions by her colleagues through the university’s Safer Spaces office, which investigates allegations of various types of discrimination and harassment.

The Safer Spaces office report on its investigation of Westbrook’s complaint noted the education department’s “long history of challenging situations and personalities” and the complexities of the case.

“There are reports of Safer Spaces concerns intertwined with issues related to faculty competence in the areas of teaching, scholarship, service, and faith,” the report states. The investigators also found that while holding a “focus group” of the kind Westbrook described “may not be a ‘best practice,'” a single instance of this also would not constitute discrimination.

The investigators found that all parties presented credibly, though memories of certain events were inconsistent, and concluded, “While there are personnel issues surrounding this complaint, we are unable to substantiate Safer Spaces violations around discrimination, harassment or retaliation.”

Westbrook appealed. An appeals committee to a large degree upheld the original findings. The appeals committee observed, however, “that there appears to be a culture or ‘vibe’ within the Education Department that may not have been supportive towards NW [Nalova Westbrook].”

The former chair of the department who supervised Westbrook and former colleagues who either supported her tenure bid or clashed with her either declined, or did not respond to, requests for comment.

In the letter about Westbrook’s case, Michael K. Le Roy, Calvin’s president, and his executive associate for diversity and inclusion, Michelle Loyd-Paige, wrote “that all steps were taken and all processes were followed to assure fairness and impartiality in the tenure review process and in the investigations of allegations that were made internally to the University, both by and about this former employee. We are confident those processes produced just results.”

“Tenure is an important imprimatur by the University, attesting that faculty are committed to Calvin’s Christian mission and have met or exceeded agreed-upon standards of classroom instruction, scholarship, and service,” Le Roy and Loyd-Paige wrote. “The university does not confer tenure lightly — nor do we deny it without just cause.”

However, a 2018 letter from Loyd-Paige provided to Inside Higher Ed by Westbrook shows that Loyd-Paige wrote a letter supporting Westbrook’s tenure bid after she observed her teaching at Westbrook’s request.

“I am recommending Nalova because she has worked to improve her teaching evaluation scores,” says the 2018 letter from Loyd-Paige, a professor of sociology and a former dean for multicultural affairs. “Her results are mixed … but students consistently state that they learn a lot in her classes. I think her mixed teaching results are connected, at least in part, to cultural differences.”

Misconduct Allegations, Investigations and Termination

Almost a year passed after the initial recommendation against tenure before the universitywide Professional Status Committee took up Westbrook’s case. The committee also recommended against tenure, and the final decision denying reappointment with tenure from Calvin’s Board of Trustees came down on Oct. 29, 2019. The decision meant Westbrook’s contract at Calvin would end this past August, but she ended up leaving even earlier after two separate misconduct investigations found fault with two actions she’d taken.

The first instance involved an evaluation she wrote for a student, following the student’s January 2019 exit interview, in which Westbrook transposed the student signature onto an evaluation form. Westbrook says it was her typical practice to conduct the exit interview, type a summary of the conversation after the student had departed, and — in a spot where students were to sign acknowledging that they have discussed the contents of the form with the instructor — import a student’s signature from the form on which she’d collected signatures of all the students in the class.

This practice, which Westbrook described as a “minor professional shortcut error,” led to a student complaint when she changed a student grade after the exit interview from an A to an A-minus and amended a straightforward recommendation to a recommendation with concerns, in effect transposing the student’s signature onto a form with a different grade and recommendation than they’d discussed. Westbrook acknowledges failures in communication with the student, but she denies fraudulent or dishonest intent. She says she adjusted the grade and recommendation to reflect issues that came to light during the interview.

Westbrook submitted an internal complaint alleging procedural and policy violations by Calvin administrators leading the inquiry into her conduct. A report Calvin commissioned by an outside lawyer (and a former president of Calvin’s Alumni Association) found no evidence of bias or animus affecting the misconduct proceedings. The report concludes that Westbrook’s transgression was more serious than she acknowledged and said she had sought to “downplay” her actions and “denigrate” individuals charged with investigating them.

“The essence of Prof. Westbrook’s position is that her ‘professional practice shortcut’ of importing a student’s signature electronically onto the exit interview form was a minor transgression deserving of nothing more than a warning,” the report from June 2019 states. “In other words, this dispute is much ado about nothing: the student deserved the lower grade, and a recommendation with concerns provides a student with valuable academic support. But Prof. Westbrook ignores the importance of transparency and honesty in dealings with students — misleading students and misrepresenting the nature of signed forms poisons the academic environment.”

In a separate incident in October 2019, Westbrook emailed a student raising concerns about another professor’s handling of an exit interview for that student. The email, on which Westbrook CC’ed the provost and a dean, instructs the student to consider the other professor’s recommendation “null and void” and suggests the other professor would be subject to an investigation and possible faculty hearing.

Westbrook, who says she graded some of the student’s work and participated in the student’s appeals hearing, has maintained she was advocating for the student. A Calvin official addressing the email during a hearing the following spring said the email was “unprofessional and demonstrated exceptionally poor judgment.”

Westbrook says she was suspended from teaching for the remainder of her contract after writing that email. She says her lawyer sent a letter to Calvin in December 2019 alleging racial discrimination and retaliation and demanding that data related to her case be preserved.

Calvin then demanded she return her university-issued laptop and iPad for examination by a third-party forensics firm. Her decision to revert the laptop to factory settings, deleting the data, before she returned it became the basis for a second misconduct investigation.

A January notice from the university of the investigation describes the deletion of data as “an egregious act that hides and destroys documents that would be pertinent to your complaint against Calvin.”

Westbrook says she preserved all documents related to her tenure case on a thumb drive, and that she was not comfortable turning over a laptop containing personal data — including her W-2 with her Social Security card, as well as personal banking information — to a third party outside the university.

In April — four months before her contract was due to end — the university fired her, citing the deletion of data from the laptop, and the fact that this was the second misconduct finding in less than a year.

“You have demonstrated a serious pattern of misconduct and poor professional judgment, both in your work with students and in your actions toward colleagues,” President Le Roy wrote in the termination letter.

He added, “Your inability to recognize and unwillingness to accept any personal responsibility for your actions, even in the face of unrefuted facts, suggests that your conduct will not change.”

Westbrook subsequently entered into settlement discussions with Calvin and signed a document on June 10 agreeing to terms of a settlement. She then withdrew from the settlement.

“The reason why I refused to sign the full settlement or to take any settlement money is because it was communicated to me that Calvin deemed the two misconduct allegations moot and were paying me as a sort of admission of this mootness,” she said. “That’s when I said there’s no way. They have to expunge my file and reverse the negative tenure decision and admit to that wrongdoing before I sign the settlement or take any settlement money.”

Calvin filed a lawsuit against Westbrook last month seeking to enforce the terms of the settlement, which included confidentiality and nondisparagement provisions.

“Despite Westbrook’s refusal to execute the Settlement Agreement, Michigan law clearly demonstrates that the Term Sheet was not a mere agreement to agree, but was a binding settlement agreement executed between the Parties,” says the complaint university officials filed in Kent County, Mich.

The university’s lawsuit denies Westbrook’s allegations that it engaged in unlawful employment practices against her.

Le Roy and Loyd-Paige say that allegations of misconduct against Westbrook were thoroughly and fairly adjudicated.

“In this instance, Faculty Hearing Committees were convened twice to address allegations of misconduct by the former faculty member. In both instances, the hearing committee supported the Provost’s findings, which were reviewed and confirmed by the Professional Status Committee, the President, and the Board of Trustees Executive Committee,” they wrote in their letter released by the public relations firm. “Our process in each instance was full, fair, and impartial.”

The letter accuses Westbrook of having “repeatedly made unfounded allegations against students, faculty and administrators.” Westbrook disputes that any of her allegations were unfounded.

“It grieves us to see excellent faculty, students, and administrators unfairly disparaged by lies and half-truths,” Le Roy and Loyd-Paige wrote. “At some point, the weight of falsehood compels us to speak up to protect the good name of Calvin’s faculty, administrators, and students. After more than two years and 21 separate hearings and reviews, we are confident that the concerns raised by this former colleague have been thoroughly and fairly addressed.”

For her part, Westbrook says that after she complained of her colleagues’ treatment of her, she came under what she describes as “hypersurveillance — two inquiries, two investigations, two hearings, two sanctions in one year.”

“I do hold myself accountable for my own professional shortcomings,” she says. “But that also does not excuse the institution or certain individuals either of racial discrimination, retaliation or wrongful termination.”

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Nalova Westbrook
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