UCLA Professor Sues Over Suspension Following Controversy Over Race-Based Grading

Last year, we discussed the controversy surrounding UCLA accounting professor Gordon Klein after he refused to exempt black students from his final exam and sent a pointed rebuttal to students asking for the “no harm” exam. This response, which was mocking, led to a formal investigation and a major campaign to have him fired. Now he is suing.

Klein is a professor in the Anderson School of Business and has taught at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) for decades.  He was suspended and placed under police protection in his home.  The response was certainly mocking in tone, more so than I would have considered appropriate.   However, the suspension, investigation, and death threats against Klein reinforced the fear of many in the academy of a raising orthodoxy on campuses.

Following the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020, Klein received a student email, which read:

“The unjust murders of Amhaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the lifethreatening [sic] actions of Amy Cooper, and the violent conduct of the UCPD in our own neighborhood have led to fear and anxiety which is further compounded by the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on the Black community. As we approach finals week, we recognize that these conditions will place Black students at an unfair academic disadvantage due to traumatic circumstances out of their control.

“We implore you to mandate that our final exam is structured as no harm, where they will only benefit students’ grades if taken. In addition, we urgently request shortened exams and extended deadlines for final assignments and projects. This is not a joint effort to get finals canceled for non-Black students, but rather an ask that you exercise compassion and leniency with Black students in our major.”

The letter further asked Klein to give high letter grades to black students in a course graded “on a curve.”

Klein wrote back to one student that he was being asked to make a distinction that he could not possibly make. This is the entirety of the message:

Thanks for your suggestion in your email below that I give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota.

Do you know the names of the classmates that are black? How can I identify them since we’ve been having online classes only?

Are there any students of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian? What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half?

Also, do you have any idea if any students are from Minneapolis? I assume that they probably are especially devastated as well. I am thinking that a white student from there might possibly be even more devastated by this, especially because some might think that they’re racist even if they are not. My TA is from Minneapolis, so if you don’t know, I can probably ask her.

Can you guide me on how I should achieve a “no-harm” outcome since our sole course grade is from a final exam only?

One last thing strikes me: Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the “color of their skin.” Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK’s admonition?

Thanks, G. Klein

The controversy led to immediate demands for Klein to be fired.  Thousands signed a petition that declares Klein must be fired for his “extremely insensitive, dismissive, and woefully racist response” and “blatant lack of empathy and unwillingness to accommodate his students.”

UCLA launched an investigation and issued a statement that “We apologize to the student who received it and to all those who have been as upset and offended by it as we are ourselves.”  It also agreed to extend all exams, presumably for all students.  I stated earlier that the extension of the time was a good idea for the school as a whole and I can certainly understand the school objecting to the tone of the response at a time of great unrest and trauma in our society.  However, the email was a poorly crafted effort by Klein to object to what he viewed as an unworkable, race-based system of accommodation.  One can certainly disagree with those objections, but the principle of academic freedom is to allow such views to be stated without fear of termination.

UCLA insists that the investigation and suspension were not due to his refusal to give preferential grading but rather the “tone” of Klein’s email. With over 20,000 calling for his termination, he was placed on mandatory leave on June 3. Nevertheless, he was cleared on July 22 by the school’s Discrimination Prevention Office and returned to the classroom.

Putting an academic on leave for the “tone” of an email is a departure from the common practice to address such issues in meetings with department heads. I think that there was a valid basis for such a sit down and admonishment given the high emotions and trauma felt in that period.

The lawsuit raises a difficult issue, however. According to the site College Fix, Klein is seeking significant damages by citing the loss of over $500,000 in private consulting contracts. That is used as a baseline for projecting a loss of $10 million over time. (I have not found those figures in the complaint itself).

However, the university can argue that a school must be able to suspend and investigate faculty without fear of such lawsuits. It ultimately cleared Klein though he was later denied a merit-pay raise increase. Courts may be reluctant to micromanage such decisions.

Since he was cleared, the complaint is based on the fact of the investigation and the harm it caused to his reputation. While there are good reasons to question whether a suspension was warranted, a court could conclude that the university investigation or public statements were not the cause of any reputational damage. Rather the university can argue that the original response drew the criticism and campaign against Klein. Moreover, the university will argue that it has a right to speak out against harmful rhetoric or actions.

The most direct statements came from Dean of the Anderson School Antonio Bernardo:

Dear UCLA Anderson Community:

On Tuesday, June 2, we were alerted to troubling conduct by one of our lecturers in the undergraduate accounting program. Our concerns have now been shared with all appropriate UCLA investigative offices.

Providing a safe, respectful and equitable environment in which students can effectively learn is fundamental to UCLA’s mission. We share common principles across the university of integrity, excellence, accountability, respect and service. Conduct that demonstrates a disregard for our core principles, including an abuse of power, is not acceptable.

The lecturer is currently on leave from campus. His courses have been reassigned to other instructors.

If anyone in our community ever feels unfairly treated or maligned because of identity, I urge you to contact Asst. Dean Heather Caruso or Professor Brett Trueman, our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion leader for students, staff and faculty. You are also free to report an incident directly to UCLA’s EDI office.

Further, I ask that each of us – students, faculty and staff – help foster a strong Anderson culture of inclusivity that will assure effective learning for all students. In the months ahead, we will also work together to identify initiatives that Anderson might undertake to advance greater equity in the broader community.

I deeply regret the increased pain and anger that our community has experienced at this very difficult time. We must and will hold each other to higher standards.

I hope we can use this event as an opportunity to recommit to respect, equity and compassion in all of our words and actions.

Best, Antonio Bernardo Dean and John E. Anderson Chair in Management

The statement uses terms like “troubling conduct” that may be hard to get traction with a court, but the clear import of these and other remarks was to paint Klein as intolerant or insensitive or even racist. Ironically, it is the “tenor” of Bernardo’s letter that will be the focus of the litigation — just as it was the tenor of Klein’s email that led to his suspension.

Klein argues that the school painted his comments as violating school policies of equality:

Although the Dean characterized Plaintiff’s email as “inexcusable” and “very hurtful,” the Student himself seemingly shrugged off Plaintiff’s questions as merely “rhetorical,” resumed his studying, and earned a course grade of “A.” The Student later proceeded to enroll in yet another class taught by Plaintiff even though he instead could have selected multiple other classes not taught by Plaintiff. Also, these emails sent by the Dean characterized Plaintiff as not supporting equality or the School’s “core principles,” which was patently false. In fact, Plaintiff’s conduct had unfailingly upheld equality and other Anderson School “core principles,” including those manifested by his supervisor’s guidance that professors not grant special exam accommodations.

Klein advances seven claims:

1. BREACH OF CONTRACT

2. VIOLATION OF RIGHT TO PRIVACY BY PUBLIC DISCLOSURE OF PRIVATE FACTS

3. VIOLATION OF RIGHT TO PRIVACY BY PLACING PLAINTIFF IN A FALSE LIGHT

4. RETALIATORY DISCRIMINATION IN VIOLATION OF LABOR CODE § 1102.5(c)

5. COMMON LAW RETALIATION IN VIOLATION OF PUBLIC POLICY

6. NEGLIGENT INTERFERENCE WITH PROSPECTIVE ECONOMIC ADVANTAGE

7. BREACH OF EMPLOYER’S STATUTORY DUTY OF POLITICAL NEUTRALITY

What is clear is that the treatment of the complaint was clearly harmful for Klein as an academic. Indeed, the damage is likely lasting and could have been avoided with a more sensitive and neutral treatment by the university.

Here is the complaint: Klein v. Bernardo

32 thoughts on “UCLA Professor Sues Over Suspension Following Controversy Over Race-Based Grading”

  1. The whole controversy is idiocy.

    Lets just give those protesting here what they want.

    If you are black – you get to go to the college of your choice – FREE.

    You can study or not – as you please – because you will receive an A in whatever courses you take.

    And when you graduate – you will be assured an excellent job with a great sallary commensurate with your degree and grades.

    Because don’t we want economists who have never demonstrated any real understanding of their subject ? Or engineers with no clue how to construct bridges ?

    Life is not fair – GET OVER IT.

    We all have an enormous scope of equal rights – these are liberties that government can not take from us.
    They are NOT outcomes we are entitled to.

    You have the right to jump over the empire state building – that does not mean you have the ability to do so.

    WE ARE NOT EQUAL.

    The very existance of tests and grades and degrees, is open acknowledgement of that.

    When you receive special treatment – because you are black, or from minneapolis, or because you are emotionally traumatized,
    or pretty much any reason, You are cheating.
    You are not only cheating those who did not get special treatment, but future employers, and ultimate the rest of society.

    Emplorers are entitled to the performance commensurate with the grades you received. If you did not earn those grades you can not deliver that.

    The rest of society is entitled to performance commensurate with the grades you received.

    Further special treatment must either be lifelong or ultimately fail.

    if you graduate based on performance(grades) you did not earn – it is highly unlikely that you can deliver.
    You will require lifelong propping up at the expense of everyone else, or you will fail.

  2. Jonathan: UCLA’s suspension of a professor for mocking a black student highlights what issues you choose to highlight in your columns. Sometimes I think it is an attempt to divert attention away from much more important topics. For example the latest Yahoo News blockbuster investigative report of CIA illegal activities during the Trump administration to interrupt and sabotage the work of journalists.

    We were all outraged when Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman ordered the assassination of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi. It now appears Trump was considering similar action against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. In 2017 WikiLeaks began publishing secret CIA docs detailing 91 different malware tools to infect and track smartphones and other operating systems, especially those of reporters. Trump/ Pompeo were embarrassed and outraged by the WikiLeaks revelations. Pompeo, then CIA Director, led the efforts against WikiLeaks calling it a “non-state hostile intelligence service”. Using this mislabeling of a news organization Pompeo ordered a review of several scenarios to either kidnap or assassinate Assange. The CIA learned that Russia was planning a response by spiriting Assange out of London to Moscow. The CIA plot then got really crazy. They stole hard drives from WikiLeaks’ associates. They planned for possible gun battles in the streets of London–even crashing a car into a Russian diplomatic vehicle containing Assange. Fortunately, cooler heads at the NSC nixed the Pompeo plot because it would be illegal and would jeopardize the extradition of Assange back to the US.

    The Yahoo report was based on interviews with 30 former intelligence officials. In an interview this week on FoxNews Pompeo did not deny the Yahoo report. Instead, he doubled down. He said the sources for the Yahoo report should be “prosecuted”. It is now clear that under Trump there were many efforts to spy on and disrupt the work of investigative reporters–like Edward Snowden, Glen Greenwald and others. Trump was so outraged about critical reporting he sued the NY Times and Washington Post. Now one would think this topic would be important to discuss because it involves direct attacks on the First Amendment rights of reporters. I guess you have decided to take a pass. Sad.

    1. Edward Snowden is not an investigative reporter he is a leaker and whistleblower, and his activities and efforts to prosecute him started long ago with Obama.

      You clearly are clueless about Glenn Greenwald – though Greenwald is no friend of Trump or the Trump administration and has repeatedly taken them to task for numerous instances of misconduct. Greenwald has repeatedly made it clear than the Trump administration has been the least offender with respect to hindering journalism or abusing national security or war powers.

      If you have actual evidence that Trump sought to assassinate Asange – please present it.
      What you have presented is thin and not evidence.

      Wikileaks has not been operating under the direction of Asange for a long time.

      I would note that as is typical of those on the left you seem to be able to hold self contradictory views concurrently.

      There was much speculation for the left that Asange not merely helped Trump get elected – but that he did so in collusion with Trump election operatives.

      There was also speculation that Trump might pardon Asange on the way out the door.

      Regardless, the antithapy between “the deep state” and Asange predates Pompeo,
      charges were filed against Asange by the Obama administration, he extradition efforts began with Obama.

      Asange and Clinton have by far the most significant hatred of each other.

      Snowden is far more loathed by the left than the right – Snowden’s exposure of the mass surveilance of US citizens came during the Obama administration.

  3. I just hear Professor Klein interviewed on John and Ken KFI-64. Was happy to see Jonathan Turley take up this incident. I particularly found it unbelievable that the Dean refused to speak to him at all, disregarded the instructions of HR and insisted on removing Professor Klein from his position. As someone who was cancelled by a group I belonged to thanks to one unhappy soul because of his false beliefs about me, I was outraged. Who are these people who think they have a right to try, and often succeed in ruining someone’s life on whatever level?

  4. He could have simply said, “No” and left it at that. The last time I pleaded with a professor was when I was a half point shy of an A and he said, “No. You knew the standard and you did not achieve it.”

    I do not necessarily disagree with his thinking but anything put in an email has the potential of being published on the front page of a publication. This would have been better handled in person.

    1. EM, any thoughts on Blacks getting preferential treatment with scores and exams? It stinks for Blacks that excel, as many do, and then have to have others look at them as if they were only succeeding due to activists DEMANDING preferential treatment. How would anyone feel when they ace a course and then find out that every member of their race received bonus points based on just their race?

      People like EM and of course Jeffreysilber and EB will ignore the issue at hand and go off on some moronic tangent about Fox News or Trump. Listen lightweights, if you can’t argue against something so obviously unjust then just ignore the column that day and don’t muddy the waters with your banal, juvenile ad hominem attacks on the good Professor.

      1. How is telling the student, “No” to his/her request a problem? The standards are set in the syllabus and everyone, no matter their circumstances, color, country of origin, or language have to meet the standards. No exceptions. Have a question? Refer back to your syllabus.

        How one goes about telling them “No” is likely the point of contention. No is still no.

          1. As a practical matter, a simple, respectful reply that guided the student back to the syllabus and class policy would have likely averted this blowup.

            Setting well constructed policy and adhering to the policy removes, as much as possible, individual emotions from the equation. The policy becomes the focus not the opinion of either party.

            Likewise, if the university acted outside their faculty policies and standard operating procedures for disputes then their case is weakened. Termination of a faculty is a huge deal and if administration did not handle this by the book they stand liable.

  5. I wish the Professor well, but the lawsuit was filed in California, which means his claim has no real chance of success

  6. How and why are they giving students so much power?
    At what point are we going to reach where the students just demand a diploma without learning anything?
    Then they demand the same from a potential employer.
    Pay me for doing nothing!

    1. Since when is a rebuttable argument made on the basis of logic insensitive? Another example of why a college degree from a “woke” university might be held worthless.

  7. I didn’t find Klein’s email to be “mocking” in the least. If it had been, I would have admired it even more. As it was written, he asked sensible questions as how he was to proceed. If a student wants to tell me how to teach my class, he should be ready to defend those suggestions. My close reading of the email turned up zero words that indicated “tone.” I am curious, Jonathan, about why you said the Klein email was “poorly crafted,” given that he was merely requesting important details from the student. The student’s email was typical of the way students often think. After 34 years of undergraduate teaching, I have had my share of students who want to be excused from doing the work of the class. Usually, it was dead grandmothers. More recently, they claim to be feeling the pain of people in the news they’ve never met or heard of. Asking a student for precise and relevant information is hardly a matter of “tone” or “mocking,” or poor craftsmanship. The problem now is that administrations see students as customers, not young scholars, who must be kept satisfied at all times. This is not a new phenomenon. The morning after the 2016 election our chancellor emailed the faculty with the “recommendation” that we provide our students with “safe space for grieving” in all our classes and that we delay tests and papers. Naturally, students loved the idea for the most superficial of reasons. Most of them hadn’t registered or voted anyway as it turns out. But who would not want a chance to turn in work late without penalty or take a “no harm” exam? The student who wasn’t prepared, that’s who. Those who are ready have always hated these work cop-outs. The problem here is that administrators have abandoned the faculty and are now complicit in the worst kind of student behavior.

    1. Good post Mary Ann.

      The problem now is that administrations see students as customers, not young scholars, who must be kept satisfied at all times.

      Colleges and universities are businesses that sell degree programs. Students are customers in the sense they are buying into what the schools are selling. Extending that customer/business relationship into accommodating every student special need or grievance is a disruption to the entire business model. It puts into jeopardy the quality of the degree programs for students currently enrolled and it risks tarnishing the marketability of the degrees for graduates. This would seem ripe for the potential of a class-action lawsuit.

  8. I taught computer science to college freshmen through graduate students. During that era the “affirmative action” movement, designed to correct past discrimination by favoring those with a certain skin-color, was the cat’s meow. Reverse discrimination. One of the candidates for admission to our graduate school had a 5.0 (on a 4 max scale) GPA. The university had added 1 to every formerly-discriminated-against’s GPA..

    Is a university a merit-based institution? If so, skin-color is not a criterion. It may be a fact that those with certain genetic heritage may be proportionally underrepresented. This is similar to the reason that I won’t be scouted by the NBA, nor a marathon runner.

    It could be that the average Kenyan or Nigerian is endowed by nature with different physical characteristics than the average Greek or Pole. Is the brain physical? Is every brain equally capable of learning the ins and outs of general relativity or heart surgery?

    Yes, discriminate. “I want my daughters to be judged.” But “not by the color of their skin but by the content” of their mind.

  9. The student has every right to ask for a race-based accommodation and the professor has every right to respond accordingly. My recommendation for how professors handle this is to tell the student the grading criteria is fixed and refer them to the dean’s office. Let them adjust final grades outside of the course, not within.

    1. A race based “accommodation” is nothing more than discrimination based on (or because of) race! Anyone in an “educational” institution should sink or swim based on the criteria announced by the teacher. That should also be the criteria in the real world. (Daily, in tv and print ads I see that ad agencies and/or businesses no longer reflect the real world in their choices of humans – or cartoon-like characters – in the ads. Instead, in this terrible age of “wokism” with their self-imposed “reparations,” they depict a USA or a customer base that looks nothing like the real world – but one where being “black” is the criteria for working in advertising.) Is it any wonder students would demand favorable discrimination of a professor?

      1. A race based “accommodation” is nothing more than discrimination based on (or because of) race!

        That was obvious. The right to ask remains and the right and role of the professor is to educate the student as to why such an accommodation is not to be granted. At least at his level. If I were the professor, I would submit final grades per existing standards.

  10. Lessened standards lessen the value of the degree. Will there be degrees for black students who got it via special standards and another for the rest of the students. If the professor was to cave to these demands they may as well print that on the degrees that are earned. The ones harmed the most are the black students who would do well on the standard exam.

  11. I don’t think the “tone” of Klein’s email was objectionable at all. Sarcasm and irony are valid forms of expression, but the “left” has completely lost its understanding of the English language as well as its sense of humor, because, you know, this “anti-racism” crusade is serious business. What may have been more objectionable to these narcissistic students is how Klein pointed out the contradictions in their request, and how unworkable it would be to implement, especially on a university-wide basis. The larger problem is that universities have given over control of faculty and curricula to the most irrational and vocal students — a tiny minority who prefer to cancel rather than learn. And after four years? Once they’re out in the real world, will businesses coddle them in the same way? Not if the bottom line still matters.

  12. I see only one problem with the professor’s legal action, he should have asked for $20,000,000. Why is anyone going to college today? If they can find an old issue of the Police Gazette I think they might be able to buy a sheepskin for just about any profession?

  13. sadly it appears blacks don’t believe they are as smart as others? Wonder when the blacks will figure out that the Democrats, don’t want them off their plantations of failure!

  14. I am appalled at the hysteria over perceived tones in communications that “if you read tea leaves upside down and at a certain angle” may be perceived to be sartorial, rhetorical, and in disagreement with individual students. Quite frankly, the facts that theses assumedly intelligent and educated students would consider their request “responsible adulting” let alone the response from the professor outside the bounds of acceptable practices is and indication of the depths of despair that permeates society, culture, and education. The actions of the students and administration are evidence of elevating emotions/feelings over facts/objectivity.

    1. I do not wish to make this about myself but, I can describe how I reacted to traumatic experiences and allow others to compare. I learned that my father had died 16 HOURS before I sat for the Georgia Bar Exam. I did not seek delays, waivers, exemptions, etc. I sat for the Bar Exam the next morning. I was in my seat at 7:30 AM. I did not curl up in a fetal position. I took both sections of the Bar Exam over the allotted days. I passed. After the exam, I went home for memorial services and was attending classes again within 3 days

  15. Thought that Klein’s response was accurate and funny.

    Not PC, but so what? We can’t all be toad licking sycophants.

    The school’s response certainly showed nonbelievers that our careers hang by a woke thread.

    And so the domination of the country by mealy mouthed Lefties continues.

    But normal people are getting tired of the bullying.

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