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September 25, 2017 11:39 am

Pro-Israel University of Maryland Professor Dismissed After Complaining of Religious Discrimination Plans Legal Action

avatar by Shiri Moshe

The University of Maryland-College Park campus. Photo: UMD.

A Jewish professor at the University of Maryland (UMD) who was dismissed months after complaining of facing religious discrimination plans to pursue legal action against the school, The Algemeiner has learned.

Dr. Melissa Landa, who worked as an assistant clinical professor at UMD’s College of Education and has been a vocal opponent of anti-Israel activism in academia, was informed on June 8 that her contract would not be renewed. Her firing, which is currently being investigated by UMD’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, came shortly after the resolution of a faculty grievance that Landa filed in February against two of her colleagues.

Faculty members who submit such complaints may not be “reprimanded or discriminated against in any way,” according to university policy, and Landa’s attorney Ari Wilkenfeld said legal steps against UMD “are forthcoming.”

Landa told The Algemeiner that her troubles began shortly after she started vocally advocating for Israel “in November 2015, when I wrote an essay for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East denouncing the [anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement in academia.” The next month, Landa — who completed her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College — formed a group to address what she and other concerned alumni saw as rising antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiment at their alma mater.

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The group soon came across social media posts by then Oberlin professor Joy Karega, who called the Islamic State terrorist group “a CIA and Mossad operation” and endorsed claims that “Israeli and Zionist Jews” were behind the 9/11 terror attacks. When Landa started speaking to the press about Karega’s comments, she shared those articles with the associate chair of UMD’s Teaching and Learning, Policy, and Leadership (TLPL) department, Dr. John O’Flahavan, who previously served as her doctoral adviser.

“He discouraged my participation and defended Joy Karega’s freedom of speech, and was critical of my involvement in [the Oberlin chapter of the anti-BDS group Alums for Campus Fairness],” Landa said.

She recounted that although O’Flahavan had once counseled her against displaying an Israeli flag in her office — indicating that it was a problematic symbol and a sign of oppression for many students — they generally had “a friendly relationship” before her activism surrounding the Karega controversy.

Landa said she began to feel a negative change in her interactions with O’Flahavan, which only worsened after she joined the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), a group that seeks to mobilize professors and administrators in opposition to the BDS movement.

Landa noted that she informed O’Flahavan about her participation in AEN in April, and shortly afterwards about her invitation to speak at the group’s inaugural conference. Less than a week later, O’Flahavan withdrew from a paper that he and Landa were set to jointly present on April 12, at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association in Washington, DC. The paper was a comparative study based on research that Landa had conducted in Israel, and O’Flahavan — who contributed research from the United States — was the second author.

“He said he was not going to present the paper with me and he was not going to attend the conference for the first several days. He gave no explanation other than he had family obligations, and I was unable to contact him by phone or email throughout the conference,” said Landa, who ultimately delivered the paper alone.

Ten days after the conference, Landa went to Israel for Passover, a trip she said she approved with TLPL department head Dr. Francine Hultgren “weeks in advance.” While Landa arranged to have her teaching assistant cover her classes and also joined them via video conference, she said she received an email from Hultgren right before the first Seder on Friday, April 22, telling her that she was “compromising my professional responsibilities by being away for such a long period of time.” Landa had been in Israel for three days at that point. By Monday, she was on a plane heading back to the United States.

The situation continued escalating after Landa received a microgrant from the AEN to establish a partnership with colleagues at the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv over the summer. The partnership was based on Landa’s research in Israel.

Landa said that days after she informed O’Flahavan about this opportunity, he reassigned her from the literacy team, which she had been involved with for over a decade, and which was crucial for her collaboration with the Levinsky College.

“I was in shock, and tried to understand what the reason was, and the reasons kept shifting, both from [O’Flahavan] and Hultgren.” Landa said she was distraught, and explained to Hultgren that this was her life’s work and that her research depended on her participation in the literacy team, but “she supported Dr. O’Flahavan’s decision.”

Ultimately, “the explanation they gave me was that this course was now going to be taught partly on campus and partly in elementary school, and they didn’t feel that I had enough experience and enough contact in the elementary school to do it successfully, despite the fact that I spent 17 years in Montgomery County public schools as a literacy educator before doing my PhD,” Landa said.

When she asked to be assigned to a different course in the literacy program, “Dr. O’Flahavan informed me that none were available,” Landa said. “Subsequently, I learned that he assigned them to doctoral students to teach.” She noted that this goes against the policy of the college of education, which prioritizes the teaching requests of faculty members over those of doctoral students.

Landa said her offer to meet with UMD’s ombuds officer to reach a compromise was rejected by O’Flahavan, while Hultgren met with the officer privately but did not agree to her proposed compromise.

“O’Flahavan cut me off from his cell phone, which he gives to all students and faculty members, he blocked my number, he informed me that his office phone was broken, and I had absolutely no way to reach him. He refused to speak with me,” Landa said.

“Finally, when it was clear to me that there wasn’t going to be an amicable resolution … I filed a formal faculty grievance in February 2017,” she added. She said this is when her work environment became “more hostile,” and that neither O’Flahavan or Hultgren were on speaking terms with her.

“Two of the most senior members of the faculty attended the grievance hearing on my behalf, praising my work, and my professionalism, and my experience,” she said.

UMD’s Faculty Grievance Panel did not vote in Landa’s favor, noting that TLPL had modified its curriculum and, according to O’Flahavan and Hultgren, other professors were better suited to teach the amended courses. However, the panel observed that some “underlying interpersonal issues between [Landa] and [O’Flahavan] may have also factored into the staffing decision.” It added that Landa had a good teaching record, and should not be prevented from teaching other literacy courses.

Three days after the panel issued its recommendation on June 5, Landa was informed that her contract would not be renewed.

“I believe that retaliation was part of their reason for firing me,” she said.

Landa noted that several UMD professors expressed their support for her, but asked to remain unnamed due to fear of retaliation. “Two of them do not have tenure,” she explained, while “three of the doctoral students who have supported me have experienced retaliation.”

She noted that many of her former students have written letters protesting her dismissal, pointing to an open letter published by 17 of Landa’s self-described “current and former students, and people of color,” in UMD’s student newspaper on September 13.

Landa “recognized and addressed the reality of racism in all her classes while advocating for faculty and students of color for more than 10 years,” the students wrote. “Landa is our ally and was one of the best professors at this institution.”

“Knowing that we attend a university that does not value her enough to retain her makes us feel the exact opposite,” the students added, calling on UMD to reverse its “careless decision” and demonstrate its commitment “to lessening racism on the campus.”

Landa’s attorney observed “that every time Professor Landa stepped up her activism or spoke out, there was a quick and adverse response from her school [lost course, lost vacation time, not having her contract renewed].”

“When you see a pattern like the one we have here, you must question if there was a discriminatory motive for the actions taken against Professor Landa,” Wilkenfeld added.

UMD representatives told The Algemeiner on behalf of O’Flahavan and Hultgren that while the university was “barred by law from commenting publicly about confidential personnel matters,” it “does not tolerate discrimination in the workplace, and freedom of speech is protected on this and all public college campuses.”

“For context on student and academic life, the Hillel chapter at UMD is the nation’s third largest and most active,” said spokesperson Katie Lawson. “The Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, one of the nation’s premiere programs of its kind, and Meyerhoff Jewish Studies Center support broad-based academic inquiry. The university also maintains strong exchange programs with premiere Israeli universities.”

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