U. Maryland Investigating Termination of Pro-Israel Professor

Office of Civil Rights investigating whether professor was targeted for pro-Israel activism

Tydings Hall at the University of Maryland
Tydings Hall at the University of Maryland / Wikimedia Commons
September 13, 2017

The non-renewal of a longtime University of Maryland professor's contract is being investigated by the school's Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct as an incident of retaliation and "religious, political, or national origin discrimination," the Washington Free Beacon has learned.

Melissa Landa, an assistant clinical professor at the College of Education for more than 10 years who also did her Phd at UM, was let go this summer by the Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership department chair and associate chair, Francine Hultgren and John O'Flahavan.

The contract non-renewal came after Landa filed a complaint in February with the grievance board challenging Hultgren and O'Flahavan's decision to remove her from the language arts instruction team in May 2016, according to a recent report by UM's the Diamondback.

According to Kenneth Waltzer, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network—an academic free speech group whose inaugural conference Landa spoke at in May and of which she is an active member—Landa was targeted for her pro-Israel activism.

"Long before she filed a grievance, she was aggrieved," he said. "I know that when they learned she was active outside the department on behalf of opposing wacko ideas about Israel, their attitude toward her changed."

Waltzer said a crucial shift in Landa's relationship with TLPL came in 2016, after she took a lead role in exposing years of anti-Semitic social media posts by Joy Karega, who was then an Oberlin College professor. Landa, an Oberlin alum, played a major part in Karega's eventual dismissal from the school, talking to the press and organizing a campaign as head of the college's chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness, a network dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism at universities.

"One of her mentors told her directly that she was interfering with Karega's freedom of speech," said Waltzer, who saw "nasty" email exchanges between the department heads and Landa.

A series of "withdrawals from connections with Melissa" followed, Waltzer continued. These included Landa being "kept out of the process" when TLPL began revising its curriculum course, he said, which "ultimately led to her being sidelined from the literacy team and classes she had helped develop and taught for years."

The grievance board issued its report on Landa's complaint on June 5, having determined that the TLPL department had "significantly modified" its curriculum, the reason O'Flahavan and Hultgren cited for removing Landa, according to the Diamondback.

A class Landa taught for nearly a decade, called "Literature for Children and Youth," will be offered this fall. The course description available online for this coming semester is identical to the summary in Spring 2017, the last time Landa gave the course.

The grievance panel said it had not received sufficient evidence to determine the decision to kick Landa off the literacy team was "unfair, discriminatory, or improperly reached."

The panel's report did mention that "underlying interpersonal issues … may have also factored into the staffing decision."

The board noted its decision was not a commentary on Landa's teaching ability and it saw no reason she should not be assigned to literacy courses.

"In the interest of the program, the Hearing Board hopes that a professional path for Dr. Landa can be found that harmonizes her teaching and scholarly interests with the needs of the Department," the report noted.

Waltzer called Landa a "passionate, committed scholar who was hitting on all cylinders" before these events transpired.

"Melissa was doing really good work. She was publishing a good deal, she has a book coming out, she was winning awards," said Waltzer.

Indeed, Landa won the education college's award for exceptional scholarship in 2017 and had previously been given its award for excellence in teaching.

Hultgren sent Landa an email on June 8 terminating her contract.

"She's sent this nasty letter, told she is to turn in her key and clear out by July 7. They told her that while she would remain on salary until December, she was persona non grata and not to come back," said Waltzer. "Now, how did that happen?"

"There seems not to have been any meeting to review her record, or any process by which she could be told why things were happening. It was just by fiat, and that's problematic," he added.

According to faculty grievance policies, the university president issues the final decision on a complaint and determines "what action, if any, will be taken" within 30 days of the grievance board releasing its report. UM President Wallace Loh signed off on the grievance board's Landa decision more than a week after she had received her termination letter.

"A lot of things here require explanation, but unfortunately they are not required to give one. It's all very troubling," said Waltzer. "Melissa got a raw deal and the university ought to look at it carefully."

Over a dozen of Landa's students have written to Loh protesting her termination.

Noah Drezner, an associate professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who previously worked for six years at the UM College of Education, attested to Landa's "extraordinarily impressive level of dedication to her students."

O'Flahavan had no comment in response to questions about the restructured TLPL program or the Title IX investigation.

It is unclear when the investigation will conclude. A university spokesperson said the school does not comment on ongoing investigations.

Landa declined to comment without a lawyer.

Update 9:12 a.m.: This post has been updated to clarify that the grievance board ruled on Landa's initial removal from the language arts instruction team and not on her contract non-renewal.

Published under: College Campuses , Israel