Carol Biliczky

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating the claims of four black students who say they face a racially hostile environment at the University of Akron.

The doctoral students say they have failed the Sociology Department’s comprehensive exams or fear they will because blacks are treated more harshly than whites.

The students are represented by Cleveland civil-rights attorney Avery Friedman, who told UA President Luis Proenza by letter in March that the constant discouragement and mistreatment were creating a “toxic environment.”

The students “have experienced career damage, severe emotional suffering and humiliation as a result of this discrimination,” he wrote.

In April, UA deputy general counsel M. Celeste Cook defended the university in her response to Friedman.

“Many of the allegations raised in your letter are significantly inaccurate, misleading, incomplete and/or taken out of context,” she wrote. The university takes “great offense to the unfair and inaccurate characterizations and misrepresentations contained in your letter.”

UA spokeswoman Eileen Korey said the investigation, which began Sept. 11, does not make the complaint valid.

The federal department “is obligated to look into any complaint that is filed in its jurisdiction in a timely way,” she said in a written statement.

Elizabeth Wells Rothenberg, an attorney with Friedman’s office, said the students decided to complain to the federal agency because UA seemed dismissive of their issues.

Many examples cited

The students point out numerous examples in which they say black students were treated unfairly when compared to similar white students seeking doctorates in sociology.

For instance, one black graduate assistant was told to organize a faculty member’s files while a white student assigned to the same faculty member conducted research.

While department policy gives students two chances to pass their comprehensive exams to qualify to work on their dissertations, white students often are given a third or fourth chance, the complainants allege.

When a black student and a white student were accused of cheating on a test, they were given similar punishments, but only the black student had to complete the punishment, the students allege.

The mistreatment is so pervasive, the students claim, that over the last decade only one black student has received a doctorate in sociology from UA while 18 white students have, according to Ohio Board of Regent records.

The only complainant who chose to be publicly identified, Darlene Forrest, said she could not understand how she could earn a bachelor’s degree from John Carroll University, a master’s from Cleveland State and a 3.8 grade-point average in her doctoral work at UA yet fail her comprehensive exam in 2010. When she asked UA faculty what was wrong with the essay exam, she was told she didn’t write well — something she said she never was told before.

Forrest since has joined an international nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., overseeing youth crime prevention programs. She points out that she replaced a staffer with a doctorate in sociology from Harvard University.

She still wants to get a doctorate in criminology but worries that she’ll fail the comprehensive exam a second time and be booted out of the program.

“I want to graduate from the Ph.D. program at the University of Akron,” she said. “I’m not leaving the program.”

UA’s graduate program in sociology is a joint one with Kent State. The students do not allege any unfairness on the part of KSU, Rothenberg, their attorney, said.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3729.