Dartmouth Professor Announces Intention to Sue Students for Being Mean to Her

A Dartmouth lecturer Priya Venkatesan appears to have some unresolved teaching issues with her Winter ’08 Writing 5 class. Most professors deal with a rude class with stern lectures, implied grading threats, and more homework. Venkatesan reportedly took a different tack: she informed the class that she is going to sue them for discrimination under Title VII. This appears genuine, though it remains hard to believe that any rationale academic would threaten such legal action.

Dartmouth blogs and papers are on fire with the story and a series of bizarre emails sent by Venkatesan. Consider the intent to sue email below:

Date: Sat, 26 Apr 2008 20:56:35
From: Priya Venkatesan
Subject: WRIT.005.17.18-WI08: Possible lawsuit

Dear former class members of Science, Technology and Society:

I tried to send an email through my server but got undelivered messages. I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you (whom shall go unmentioned in this email) of violating Title VII of anti-federal discrimination laws.

The feeling that I am getting from the outside world is that Dartmouth is considered a bigoted place, so this may not be news and I may be successful in this lawsuit. I am also writing a book detailing my eperiences as your instructor, which will “name names” so to speak. I have all of your evaluation and these will be reproduced in the book.

Have a nice day.

Venkatesan appears upset that the students disagree with her and even applauded a student who stood up to her in class. Sounds like a pretty engaged class. Most professor complain that students rarely look up from their laptops. In order to applaud, the students would have had to actually take their fingers off the keyboard for a period of time.

If true, Venkatesan fulfills the worst stereotypes of some educators. All to often academics teach “new ideas” but resist any “old ideas” from being interjected into their classes. I try to start fights with students because I find that passionate debate tends to sharpen points and engage a class to a great degree. More importantly, too many academics believe that their jobs is to instill a particular value or view in their students — rather than expose them to different views and allowing them to adopt the view that they find most compelling. As a general rule, I have found that serving students with legal complaints or subpoenas tends to undermine the teacher/student relationship. Though the depositions would have a great one-to-one student/teacher ratio.

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10 thoughts on “Dartmouth Professor Announces Intention to Sue Students for Being Mean to Her”

  1. And it’s not “anti-federal” discrimination laws, its federal anti-discrimination laws.

  2. JT –
    So how exactly is it that you know:
    “Most professors deal with a rude class with stern lectures, implied grading threats, and more homework.”


  3. An update:


    Venkatesan herself also graduated from Dartmouth in 1990. Writing 5 should be an open and engaging learning environment for first-years. Venkatesan places a great deal of emphasis on her research, but if she’s stifling open discussion as a teacher, she should not be in the classroom.

  4. Dunder,

    The legal system is not at fault. But you, if you have two brain cells to rub together, probably already know that.

    There exists in law a variety of ways to seek remedy for perceived harm. This is good. It keeps us from going out and taking shots at each other with our second amendment firearms. We all don’t want a bellum omnium contra omnes been there done that and law arose because people didn’t like lawlessness.

    The teacher took advantage of the law’s system of remedies and I don’t agree with her, but she made that decision and the legal process will sort out whether she has any merit to her claim.

    Don’t blame the law! That’s like blaming Windows Explorer for the fact you can navigate to websites that have “adult” content! Or blaming your car that you drove it into a ditch. Or blaming the Constitution that we got a President like Mr. Bush.

  5. dunder
    1, April 30, 2008 at 8:05 am
    More proof the legal profession has totally gutted America of any common sense, morality, and sense of purpose.

    Gosh, I guess that sums it all up, heh. And in just one pithy sentence. Wow! Such insight and intelligence. Can’t argue with such a fact-laden, focussed presentation as that.

  6. More proof the legal profession has totally gutted America of any common sense, morality, and sense of purpose.

  7. JT:

    I think our professor has proven everything the students have done or said about here by her threatened filing. She forgot the first rule of conflict which says before seeking satisfaction or retribution, you must first be perceived as advancing a just cause. Her’s is just silly
    By the way, she’s not alone here. Bush and Cheney could use a refresher course here as well.

    Thanks to David W for the fine synopsis of the applicable law.

  8. Title VII applies only to employers, not individuals such as students. Wrighten v. Glowski, 232 F.3d 119 (2d Cir. 2000); Sheridan v. E.I. DuPont, 100 F.3d 1061, 1077 (3d Cir. 1996).

    Moreover, it requires some sort of adverse employment action against the employee. Lee-Crespo v. Schering-Plough Del Caribe Inc., 354 F.3d 34 (1st Cir. 2003). So far, she still has her job and hasn’t been disciplined in any way.

    Similarly, a Section 1983 lawsuit against individuals for the depravation of civil rights applies only to government action or that done under color of law, not private actors. Lugar v. Edmonson Oil Co., Inc., 457 U.S. 922, 940 (1982); Destek Group, Inc. v. State of New Hampshire Public Utilities Com’n, 318 F.3d 32, 39-40 (1st Cir. 2003); Brown v. Newberger, 291 F.3d 89, 93 (1st Cir. 2002).

    Other provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply to places of public accommodation, government actors & their agents, and those institutions receiving federal funds. Students in the classroom setting don’t fit into any of those categories.

    Of course, the school itself can be held liable if a teacher were subjected to a hostile work environment and then failed to do something about it. But the conduct that’s being characterized as harassment must be severe or pervasive enough to alter the victim’s employment conditions & create an abusive atmosphere. Billings v. Town of Grafton, 515 F.3d 39 (1st Cir. 2008). And a subjective belief by the alleged victim alone is not enough. The environment must be judged hostile from an objective viewpoint by a reasonable person. Faragher v. City of Boca Raton 524 U.S. 775, 787 (1998).

    As described in the various articles recounting the allegations, classroom discussions, argument & debate, disagreements, or intellectual confrontations – and especially applauding a fellow student – don’t rise anywhere near the level necessary to become actionable discrimination or harassment under civil rights laws. Seils v. Rochester City School Dist., 192 F.Supp. 2d 100 (W.D.N.Y. 2002) (discussing disruptive students in the classroom); Mongelli v. Red Clay Consolidated School Dist., 491 F.Supp.2d 467 (D.Del. 2007) (allegations of offensive and humiliating conduct by students failed to establish severe & pervasive element of a hostile work environment); Campo-Rivera v. Puerto Rico, 464 F.3d 14 (1st Cir. 2006) (rude and indifferent conduct towards teacher did not create a hostile work environment).

    A “Point Of View” essay she wrote her describing her academic musings is available here: http://dartmed.dartmouth.edu/summer07/html/point_of_view.php

    If she’s this easily offended and so irrational that she retaliates against students who challenge her viewpoints or criticize her methods, cancels class because heated debate causes her severe emotional & “intellectual” (that’s a new one) distress, or sends blanket threats to sue anyone who disagrees with her in the classroom, perhaps she should consider a different profession.

  9. Haha, I knew you would post on this story, professor. I noticed this creepy obsession with laptops when I visited GW Law, Professor. I felt like I was in the twilight zone, floating in non-space surrounded by key-tapping zombies. In marked contrast, Wash U and UCLA had very few lappies in the classroom. Methinks that the lack of laptops in UCLA may have alot to do with their ban on classroom internet.

    Poker…….Property……poker……property……definitely poker!

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