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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

December 16, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Former IC professor sues the college for $1 million over termination

Michael Stuprich, a former professor in the Department of English at Ithaca College, is suing the college, claiming that he was wrongfully terminated.

A tenured professor who had been teaching for 30 years, Stuprich filed a lawsuit against the college Oct. 3, seeking damages in the amount of $1 million as a result of his dismissal from the college.

The reason for Stuprich’s termination is unclear. However, according to the lawsuit, Stuprich’s wife received a call from Brian Dickens, vice president of human resources, who allegedly told her that Stuprich had been fired due to “email threats to a student and to a faculty colleague.”

Stuprich said in the lawsuit he was alerted of his dismissal from the college by James Swafford, associate professor in the Department of English. The lawsuit states that Swafford called Stuprich on July 14 to tell him that, according to a letter from Rochon dated June 20, Stuprich had been fired — effective immediately. The lawsuit also states that Swafford also told Stuprich that he had attempted to call him a day before about a July 14 meeting with Dickens, and that Stuprich’s office and possessions had been packed up.

However, Swafford told The Ithacan he was calling Stuprich as a friend and that it was his understanding that Stuprich had already been alerted of his dismissal. He declined to comment further on the lawsuit.

In addition, the lawsuit describes an incident that occurred between Stuprich and an unidentified student and that student’s adviser, Warren Schlesinger, an associate professor in the department of accounting. Sophomore legal studies major Ahad Rauf said he believes he is the student mentioned in the lawsuit.

Stuprich’s lawyer, Nino Lama, declined to comment and did not make Stuprich available for an interview. When The Ithacan reached Stuprich via phone, he declined to comment. Schlesinger and Dan Breen, associate professor and chair of the English department, declined multiple requests for comment and David Maley, senior associate director of media relations, said the college does not comment on ongoing litigation.

Rauf was enrolled in Stuprich’s Introduction to Poetry course during Fall 2016, when he was a freshman. Rauf said he took the class to fulfill a requirement for the Integrative Core Curriculum.

The incident cited in the lawsuit revolves around an email exchange between Rauf and Stuprich during Spring 2017. Rauf said he wanted to discuss why Stuprich gave him a low final grade for the course.

Michael Stuprich v. Ithaca College lawsuit document

Rauf is from Pakistan and his first language is not English. He said Stuprich’s course was difficult for him — on his midterm grade he received a C+, and his final grade dropped to a D. He said the low grade was particularly concerning because it threatened his ability to continue receiving an academic scholarship from the college. During the spring semester, Rauf met with Schlesinger, his adviser at the time, to discuss possible options to retain his academic scholarship. Rauf said Schlesinger advised him to email Stuprich — not to ask if his grade could be changed, but so the two could discuss how and why he received the grade.

Rauf made this email exchange between him and Stuprich available to The Ithacan.

“My advisor wanted me to come and sit down with you to discuss and review my final grade in ENGL 11300 in Fall 2016,” he wrote in the April 3 email. “Is it possible if i could come to your office any time soon to sit down and go through my whole grade?”

In his reply to the student sent April 4, Stuprich said he would not change the grade and thought a meeting would be pointless.

“I’m pretty sure we both know why I gave you the grade I gave you, and that it, to be frank, was a gift,” Stuprich wrote in the message. “To be frank, with your problems with the language, you had no business being in a poetry class, and your advisor–if he/she had anything to do with it–should certainly have known better.”

Rauf said he felt hurt by the email. After receiving it, he said he shared the emails with his adviser and also immediately reported the incident to Human Resources at the college.

“It was completely wrong,” the Rauf said. “It was discriminatory, in my personal opinion, because it was saying that I could not speak English … and saying that all the work that I put into your class was just so you can tell me that it was a gift, giving me a D in that class? That was why I felt really hurt.”

Rauf said he felt compelled to report the incident to Human Resources because he wanted to prevent future similar occurrences between Stuprich and other students. At that point, he said, he did not care about changing his grade.

In the months following the initial email exchange with Stuprich, Rauf said, he was in contact with his adviser; the college’s Human Resources team; Vincent Wang, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences; and Breen.

According to the lawsuit filed by Stuprich and his attorneys, Schlesinger demanded that Stuprich “arbitrarily raise” the student’s grade. The lawsuit states that Stuprich thought the email to “be unethical and improper.”

The college’s official policy for a grade dispute is that it should be resolved between the student and the faculty member in question. If that is not possible, the department chair or dean may intervene to provide “mediation.” If the dispute is still not settled, the student may file a petition with the provost. In Rauf’s case, he did not attempt to change his grade through this method.

While Stuprich’s employment has been terminated by the college, Rauf’s D grade remains on his transcript.

The lawsuit claims that Stuprich advised Schlesinger that they should discuss the situation off campus “due to its controversial nature.” Schlesinger further accused the professor of mistreating the student, Stuprich alleges in the lawsuit.

 

Policy for firing a professor

 

In the lawsuit, Stuprich alleges the college violated academic due process because, he claims, he was “never advised that he had any time limit to ‘appeal’ this dismissal.” It also states that Stuprich was never “advised that a hearing could be conducted” or that he “had the right to be represented by his own attorney in any such proceedings.”

Under the tenets of Volume IV: Faculty Handbook of the Ithaca College Policy Manual, a faculty member can file a grievance after being dismissed. The policy states that the grievance petition must be initiated within 30 days of the “grievable event” regardless of any attempts to address the grievance informally. The grievance is then reviewed by “the chair of the grievance committee” in consultation with the grievance committee itself to decide whether the process moves forward or whether the complaint is dismissed.

Maley did not respond to a request for comment on whether it notifies dismissed professors of their right to file a grievance or about the time limit to do so.

In his lawsuit, Stuprich also argued that his termination represented a breach of contract because the college “failed to perform or follow their internal procedures, rules and policies governing its dismissal for cause process.”

According to the Faculty Handbook, the college does not always need to warn a professor before dismissing them. The Faculty Handbook does state that a letter of dismissal should be hand-delivered to the faculty member in question. If that is not possible, it should be sent to the faculty member’s home address. The policy states that if a return receipt is not received within five days, the college must make additional efforts to notify the faculty member. It is unclear whether the college took these steps.

 

The students

 

Multiple students have shared stories of interactions they have had with Stuprich they have described as inappropriate and uncomfortable.

The Ithacan spoke to a number of students who have had previous courses with Stuprich. On the site Rate My Professors, Stuprich has received 36 positive reviews, four average reviews and nine negative reviews. The students interviewed by The Ithacan primarily spoke of negative experiences they have had with him.

Kevin Fermini ‘17, said he took the course Literature of Horror with Stuprich his last semester of college. Fermini said that in this class Stuprich disrespected a student who used “they” pronouns when they were not in class.

“One day, this student didn’t show up to class and Stuprich asked where they were,” Fermini said. “When another student answered, ‘they’re probably not coming today,’ Stuprich spent a completely inappropriate amount of time questioning why someone would go as ‘they.’

Fermini said the last “red flag” for him was during the last few weeks of the semester when Stuprich assigned readings containing explicit scenes of rape and sexual assault. During a group discussion, Fermini said he called Stuprich out for not warning students of these readings.

“He argued back that the stories had been in the syllabus all semester and that we should’ve known what was coming,” he said. “I replied saying that it was his responsibility to warn us about a subject matter, and that leaving it up to us to figure out was irresponsible.”

Fermini said he received an email from Stuprich following the incident in class. Stuprich said he wanted to discuss Fermini’s behavior in class and suggested including his academic adviser. The following email conversation between Fermini and Stuprich was obtained by The Ithacan.

Fermini responded with an apology for his “unnecessarily aggressive” response and for taking his response to a personal level. However, he said he believed his behavior was fair, and he stands by his point about Stuprich’s responsibility as a professor to make sure his students were aware of the kind of content he was sharing with them.

Stuprich, in his response, thanked Fermini for his continuous contribution to the class, offered future help and said he looked forward to evaluating his final paper. Three days after this response, Stuprich sent another email asking Fermini for the name of his adviser. After Fermini asked why he needed that information, Stuprich replied “Well, I’d like to do know why decided to act as you did in my class. And I’m sure Prof. Bonnetta might be be curious as well. Have you some ‘mental’ issues? MS.”

One student, who requested to remain anonymous because of future-employment concerns, took a course on Jane Austen taught by Stuprich their junior year. They said Stuprich sent the following email two weeks into the semester.

The following emails were obtained by The Ithacan.

The email said the following: “Hi 341 Students: let me plain. I teach Jane Austen because I love her work. It inspires and, in many ways, sustains me. That, from what I can infer from your responses so far, is something most of you simply can’t understand. (And many of you are English majors–Shame on you! Double shame on English ed. students. Some of you can’t simply can’t locate major characters or events.) So if you can’t find the time to read Austen’s novels and prepare for the class, and engage in a meaningful and instructive discussion–if you want to impersonate a tree stump-I-have a simple solution: Drop the class! Now!! Otherwise, beginning next class, we will begin class with a 20-question quiz each and every day. Now: My name is Michael Stuprich. You know where to find me.”

The student said this email was sent at 9:44 P.M. and that other students in the class were alarmed by it.

“He never gave us any indication in class that we were doing something that disappointed him, so this came as a complete shock to us,” they said. “We were all very nervous to go to class the next time.”

The student said Stuprich apologized for sending the email and there would not be a 20-question quiz, and that he wanted the class to engage more. The students agreed, even though they felt they were doing the work.

Sophomore Andrea Yzaguirre, who took Introduction to Poetry with Stuprich during Fall 2016, said that by the end of the course she had lost respect for Stuprich as a professor. Yzaguirre recalled one instance in which Stuprich publically confronted her about her writing.

“He didn’t like the way I wrote sentences,” she said. “He called me up in front of the class to come up, not while class was happening but when everyone was still there. And he just said, ‘I think we should go over how to write a sentence. Do you know the parts of a sentence?’”

Yzaguirre said she found the question insulting and wondered why Stuprich did not attach a note to her essay or ask her to come to office hours instead to talk about the issue privately.

Senior Rachel Balzano took Introduction to Poetry with Stuprich in Fall 2014 and said that he made her feel uncomfortable.

She said Stuprich had hugged her a handful of times over the course of the past few years, adding that they felt awkward and nonconsensual.

“I didn’t feel comfortable to challenge feeling uncomfortable by something a male professor had done,” she said. “I think it’s really unfortunate, but I think it’s something that happens far too often and students are just too scared to say anything.”

Ana Borruto can be reached at aborruto@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @anaborruto

Celisa Calacal can be reached at ccalacal@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @celisa_mia

Evan Popp can be reached at epopp@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @evanpopp22