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December 7, 2017 6:02 pm

University of Maryland Dismisses Complaint by Professor Who Says She Was Fired Over Pro-Israel Activism

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Former University of Maryland professor Melissa Landa (center with blue shirt) with students. Photo: Courtesy.

The University of Maryland (UMD) has dismissed a complaint by a former Jewish professor who believes she was let go due to her pro-Israel activism.

Melissa Landa, previously an assistant clinical professor at UMD’s College of Education, was informed last month that the school’s months-long investigation into her firing did not find that she was “discriminated against or subjected to retaliation.”

Landa first filed a complaint with UMD’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct (OCRSM) after learning on June 8th that her contract would not be renewed. A member of several groups that monitor and challenge anti-Israel bias in academia, Landa has suggested that the school’s decision may have been influenced by her advocacy work, as well as a faculty grievance she filed against two administrators in February. University policy dictates that faculty members who submit such complaints may not be “reprimanded or discriminated against in any way.”

Landa told The Algemeiner that she started noticing tensions at work after she began publicly speaking out against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. She claims to have notified Francine Hultgren — head of UMD’s Teaching and Learning, Policy, and Leadership (TLPL) department — about her activism as soon as she was quoted in the press in January 2016, and informed John O’Flahavan — the department’s associate chair — a month later.

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Landa indicated that O’Flahavan was “critical” of her advocacy efforts, and that their once “friendly relationship” began to cool. She pointed to a pattern of events that affected their interactions — including O’Flahavan’s withdrawal from a paper that he and Landa were set to jointly present in April, less than a week after Landa informed him of her activities with the anti-BDS Academic Engagement Network.

Her standing with Hultgren was also jeopardized when Landa went on a pre-approved trip to Israel for Passover — a holiday that ended after less than a week because Hultgren said Landa’s professional responsibilities were being compromised by her absence.

Ultimately — after O’Flahavan removed Landa from a literacy course that she said was crucial to her ongoing research in Israel — Landa sought the help of UMD’s ombuds officer. When that avenue failed, she filed a faculty grievance against O’Flahavan and Hultgren in February 2017.

UMD’s Faculty Grievance Panel did not vote in Landa’s favor. However, it determined that Landa had a good teaching record and should not be prevented from teaching literacy courses. Three days after the panel issued its decision, Landa was told that her contract would not be renewed.

“I believe that retaliation was part of their reason for firing me,” she said — a point she made when filing a complaint with the OCRSM over her dismissal. Landa’s complaint also charged that her firing amounted to “discrimination based on religion, political affiliation, and national origin.”

She told The Algemeiner that she was “very surprised” by the result of the OCRSM’s investigation, which she appealed late last month. Landa claimed that investigators did not contact most of the witnesses she identified, and only cited two in their report on her complaint, one briefly.

She also pointed out that investigators did not include any email exchanges between Hultgren and O’Flahavan about her termination as evidence, and only cited the professors’ verbal accounts.

Landa noted that, in her absence, UMD students are being prevented from participating in critical classes and programs that she led. Among these is a short-term study abroad trip to Israel — which Landa indicated catered to low-income, first-generation, minority students — and a campus-wide symposium held following the program’s conclusion.

Landa said that some courses she taught, which featured material on Israel and antisemitism, have also been discontinued — including one that took students on a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and addressed stereotypes of Jews and other minorities.

She pointed to over a dozen letters sent to UMD President Wallace Loh from former students following her firing — a chorus of support that called the university’s decision “unfair,” “baffling,” “wrongful,” and “an incredible disservice” to future graduates.

“I can’t help but be disheartened at the decision the school has chosen to make,” wrote one former student. “Whatever discrepancies might exist, whether personal or professional, between her and her superiors, they are not worth losing such an incredible presence at the university over.”

Misha Brenner, one of Landa’s former students, similarly said her lessons opened his eyes to “different aspects of American life” — exposing him, for instance, “to the narrative of people who live in rural poverty.”

Brenner also participated in one of Landa’s study abroad programs in Israel, and told The Algemeiner that Landa “made a real emphasis to introduce her students to people of all different religions, stripes, and classes, in order to actually give her students a more honest picture of Israel.” He said preventing students from having similar experiences with Landa “is really a shame.”

Yael Lerman, legal director at the advocacy group StandWithUs, said she disagreed with the OCRSM investigation’s findings, “particularly on the subject of discrimination based on political viewpoint.”

“To us, the evidence is there that … not letting her teach the course that she needed and then firing her was … due to her political views in fighting BDS,” she told The Algemeiner. “We’re not surprised the university found that way, but we don’t agree with it.”

She argued that the OCRSM report “ignored the broader context” of Landa’s complaint, “which was … obstacles [certain faculty] made for her after discovering her anti-BDS activity.”

Landa got along with the faculty members “for over 10 years and was consistently getting recognized for her work,” Lerman pointed out. Her difficulties at work only began “once she became active in fighting BDS.”

Lerman added that with Landa’s departure, Jewish students at UMD lost an important “advocate.”

“If you don’t have professors who are pro-Israel on campus willing to sponsor you — say, for your trip to Israel or for your research paper — it impacts students in other ways besides not just being able to take the trip to Israel,” she said.

“They’ve now lost one of the most vocal anti-BDS activists on the campus,” Lerman observed. “It really has huge repercussions for Jewish students.”

While UMD indicated that it could not comment on Landa’s case until the completion of the appeals process, the university told The Algemeiner in September that 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 premier Israeli universities.”

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