Three Wayne State University Press employees have filed individual complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, charging Wayne State University with discrimination on the basis of race and retaliation against them. The three employees—editor-in-chief Annie Martin; editorial, design, and production editor Kristin Harpster; and marketing and sales manager Emily Nowak—were fired on February 7 during a meeting called by Jon Cawthorne, the dean of the Detroit university’s library system, who at the time was tasked with oversight of the press. Interim director Tara Reeser was also present at that meeting, as was a university human resources representative, who informed the three that their services were no longer required.
After two weeks of controversy—which included an open letter condemning the firings and demanding reinstatement signed by 85 authors and others affiliated with the university, as well as another one signed by the WSU Press advisory council of 17 faculty members—the three employees were rehired to their former positions on Feb. 21 and returned to the office on Feb. 25. They are now back at work under the supervision of the current interim director, Kathy Wildfong, who reports to WSU’s chief of staff and v-p of communications, Michael Wright, as Cawthorne was relieved of that responsibility a week after the firings. Reeser resigned as interim director and left the university altogether shortly after the transfer of responsibility for the press from Cawthorne to Wright.
In individual documents that contained similar wording filed on March 3, the three employees each claim that Reeser had “on or about 2018 attempted to interfere with the hiring process” by demanding that only African-Americans be considered for any open positions at the press. (Reeser is white, while Cawthorne is African-American.) Each employee also stated that last summer, the three together notified the university’s human resources department that Reeser was making “racially bias [sic] requests.” Furthermore, the three allege, “on or about November 2019” Cawthorne and Reeser were “involved in an inappropriate relationship” and that this was reported to the university’s HR department. Each employee’s allegations conclude with the statement, “I believe I was subjected to retaliation and discharged due to my race, Caucasian, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.”
Jennifer McManus of Fagan McManus, a Detroit-area law firm, released to PW yesterday a joint personal statement made by the three WSU Press employees expanding upon their allegations in which the three stated, "Filing an EEOC complaint charging WSU with retaliation and discrimination is the last thing any of us wanted to do. We are happy to be reinstated, but our firing still hasn’t been explained. Given WSU’s stunning lack of transparency, we feel they left us no choice. We still don’t know why we were fired in the first place."
The three said that they had filed a complaint with the university concerning Reeser's insistence upon hiring African-American candidates for any open positions at the press, which resulted in their HR rep recommending an investigation, but then they were switched to a new HR rep who was "more directly aligned with" Reeser and Cawthorne. After repeating their complaints to their new HR rep, and also expressing their concerns about Reeser and Cawthorne's "unusual personal relationship," the three were fired "without explanation, a move we believe to be retaliatory."
Also, the three allege in the statement, "at least two of our three jobs were either quietly filled by or in the advanced stages of being filled by African-American candidates who, while talented in many ways, have little experience in the business of book publishing, marketing, or acquisitions."
They added: "We are not opposed in any form or fashion to working for or hiring African-Americans or any other people of color. In fact, the need for further diversity and inclusion in the non-profit sector and publishing in general is a widely discussed issue within the university and the publishing industry. What we are opposed to is our terminations and the subsequent lack of answers from WSU. They refuse to give us any assurances that what happened—and again, we still don’t know what happened—will not happen again, not to us, not to our colleagues, not to our vendors and partners, and not to our authors. We want to hold leadership accountable. We hope our EEOC filing advances a productive conversation," as the university will now have to provide the three and their lawyer with more information regarding what led to the action.
In response to PW's query, WSU's director of communications, Matt Lockwood, declined comment, stating that since a complaint has been filed, on advice of WSU counsel, it would be "inappropriate" to respond in the media.