Point Park prof says she’s still ‘shunned’ on campus as litigation proceeds
College controversyCase update

Point Park prof says she’s still ‘shunned’ on campus as litigation proceeds

A federal judge has ruled that Channa Newman can proceed with her claims of employment discrimination and retaliation against the university.

Caption: Channa Newman (Photo by Thomas Mullane)
Caption: Channa Newman (Photo by Thomas Mullane)

This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. on April 11.

Channa Newman, a Jewish professor who filed a lawsuit against Point Park University more than two years ago alleging employment discrimination based on her Jewish and Israeli ancestry, says she is still being “isolated” and “shunned” at work.

But her litigation took a step forward last month when federal Judge Mark Hornak issued an 82-page opinion on a motion to dismiss the suit that was filed by Point Park in April 2020. Hornak, Chief United States District Judge in the Western District of Pennsylvania, dismissed several counts in Newman’s 19-count complaint — including her hostile work environment claim and a breach of contract claim — but left intact claims of statutory discrimination and retaliation.

“I’m very relieved we are moving forward, especially since I don’t see any great improvement with the situation at Point Park,” Newman said. “There is continued discrimination against me, hindering my performance as [department] chair and slanderous remarks sometimes made in public even.”

Newman, a Holocaust survivor with U.S., Israeli and Czech citizenship, has been employed by Point Park since 1964. She is the chair of the department of humanities and social sciences and is a professor of French and cultural studies.

In her amended complaint, Newman alleges that Professor Robert Ross, an outspoken critic of Israel, used his position at Point Park to promote “highly anti-Zionist views and activities” and to “foster the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.” She says that Ross and others sought to have her removed from her position because she did not acquiesce to their one-sided presentation of the conflict.

Newman claims in her complaint that, with the support of Point Park, Ross along with Professor J. Dwight Hines, have “advanced militant and hateful views against Israel and in favor of BDS that are anti-Semitic and lead to the creation of a hostile work environment.” She also claims that Ross and Hines successfully pushed for her removal as the coordinator of the Global Cultural Studies program and that the Point Park administration permitted Ross and Hines to create a Social Justice Program within the GCS program without consulting or informing her or her department.

Newman alleges that she told the provost of Point Park that she was a Holocaust surivior who “had seen the conflation of social activism with targeting of Jews and Israel,” and that the Social Justice program is “a cover for anti-Semitism.” Ross and Hines ultimately moved it to a different academic department.

The anti-Zionists on campus tried to remove Newman from her position at Point Park through the filing of a Title IX complaint against her, in which a student claimed that Newman made an insensitive comment about the #MeToo movement, Newman alleges in her complaint. She was exonerated from those charges, but not before she had endured significant maltreatment from the university, including having her classes canceled mid-semester, being prohibited from campus and being denied access to her email — actions she says were not taken against other faculty members accused of Title IX infractions.

In his ruling on Newman’s claims of employment discrimination, Hornak concluded that she had pled facts “sufficient to plausibly show that at least some similarly situated employees engaged in sufficiently ‘nearly identical’ misconduct of which Plaintiff was accused but were not subject to the same array of investigatory procedures and consequences that Defendant imposed on Plaintiff.” The court found that Newman sufficiently pled a claim for employment discrimination based on her age, sex, religion and national origin, as well as sufficient facts to proceed on her unlawful retaliation claim.

“We’re very pleased that the core discrimination claims and retaliation claims are going through to trial,” Newman’s attorney James Lieber said. “We feel like we have a strong case going forward.”

While the court did not find that there was enough evidence for Newman to proceed on her hostile work environment claim, Lieber said his client has filed a new complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “which includes the continuing hostility [she is facing at Point Park] and eventually that issue will be addressed again.”

Newman said she is still troubled by her work conditions and that she continues “to be targeted as someone who is opposed to ‘activism’ — it’s one of those lines given to students to turn them against me and steer them to [the] Social Justice [department]. Defamation is still in the air. The effect is still palpable.”

“There is a general unwillingness to acknowledge what was done to me, which was horrendous,” she added. “I am looking forward to the truth coming out and to having justice prevail.”

Newman is concerned that if her case is not resolved favorably, a negative precedent could be set for other Jewish students and faculty — at Point Park and elsewhere — who speak out in support of Israel.

“It could put any Jewish person in danger and intimidate them from ever speaking out against antisemitism and anti-Zionism,” she said. “The one who points it out becomes the target. That’s what happened to me. I don’t want this to be repeated.”

Newman’s case has garnered national attention and, in 2020, The Lawfare Project, a nonprofit whose attorneys pursue legal action to combat civil rights violations of Jewish people worldwide, got involved.

“Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for university professors to be vilified, shunned, harassed and retaliated against, simply for objecting to anti-Zionist agendas that are being peddled by their peers under the pretense of teaching human rights,” said Ziporah Reich, Lawfare’s director of litigation and co-counsel in the Newman case. “This is part of a larger campaign that seeks to squeeze out Jewish professors in order to eliminate opposition to anti-Jewish curriculums.

“What happened to Dr. Newman at Point Park University was particularly egregious because professors collaborated with students to falsely accuse the professor — who had a 50-year unblemished teaching history at the university — of a Title IX violation,” Reich continued. “To add insult to injury, university administrators not only failed to protect Dr. Newman’s rights during the Title IX investigation, but they refused to protect her from the bullying that ensued when she returned to campus after the charges against her were found to be totally baseless.”

Last month’s ruling on Point Park’s motion to dismiss “is one small step on the path to justice,” Reich said.

Point Park University declined to comment.

But in an April 2020 opinion piece for the Chronicle, Point Park’s then-president, Paul Hennigan, wrote: “All forms of anti-Semitism, which includes support for the BDS movement, generally defined as Palestinian-led campaign promoting various forms of boycott against Israel, has no place at Point Park University.” Hennigan retired from Point Park in 2021.

Ross, one of the two anti-Zionist professors referenced in Newman’s complaint, declined to be interviewed; instead, he emailed the following statement to the Chronicle: “I am thrilled that Judge Hornak has dismissed all counts related to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Judge Hornak’s ruling confirms that BDS is a legitimate, legal form of protest, which in no way targets or harms individuals. This sweeping dismissal is a victory for the movement for Palestinian rights and liberation and should be celebrated by all who care about peace, justice, and equity.”

Lieber disagrees with Ross’ assessment of Hornak’s opinion.

The judge, Lieber said, “found it plausible that Channa Newman was targeted as an Israeli and a Jew. The amended complaint makes clear that anti-Zionists were very involved in attempting to harm her career.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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