UIS sued

Former employees claim discrimination

Two former employees of the Intensive English Program at University of Illinois Springfield have sued UIS, claiming the university discriminated against students from the Middle East and Mexico.

The federal lawsuits filed by Driss El-Akrich, a former IEP interim director, and Jacqueline Tanner, a former instructor, mirror each other. Both plaintiffs say that they suffered discrimination and retaliation when they complained that students from the Middle East and Mexico had suffered discrimination.

Derek Schnapp, UIS spokesman, said that the university is aware of the lawsuits, but cannot comment on active litigation.

The IEP is intended to teach foreign students English so that they can enroll as full-fledged undergraduates. El-Akrich says that enrollment in the program grew from eight to ten students in 2013 to between 55 and 60 students in 2015, after UIS sent him to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in Washington, D.C., with the goal of getting the UIS program placed on the mission’s list of approved colleges. The mission provides scholarships for Saudi students, but only if they attend programs on the list, according to El-Akrich’s lawsuit.

In an interview, Mona Ahsan, attorney for El-Akrich and Tanner, said that skyrocketing enrollment in the program between 2013 and 2015 was due mostly to an increase in Saudi students who began attending after UIS was placed on the list of approved schools.

In 2015, the IEP underwent a reorganization, El-Akrich and Tanner say in their lawsuits, and both they and students suffered. One month after the program moved from the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning to the Center for Academic Success at UIS, El-Akrich and Tanner say they complained to UIS vice-chancellor Karen Moranski about discrimination against students from Mexico. El-Akrich says that Jonathan GoldbergBelle, UIS director of international programs, was reluctant to arrange visas for Mexican students who were supposed to come to UIS for 30 days to study English. GoldbergBelle said that arranging visas for Mexican students was “too much work,” El-Akrich says. GoldbergBelle also said that Mexican students should find their own way between Springfield and Lambert Airport in St. Louis, El-Akrich claims. By contrast, El-Akrich says, GoldbergBelle provided transportation for Asian students.

In the fall of 2015, El-Akrich says, GoldbergBelle took over his duties as interim IEP director and began concentrating on Middle Eastern students who missed class. El-Akrich, however, remained on the UIS payroll with reduced responsibilities and authority. In one case, El-Akrich says, GoldbergBelle said that a Middle Eastern student who missed more than one class should have been deported. GoldbergBelle was not concerned, El-Akrich says, when two Chinese students were gone for almost an entire semester, nor did he express concerns when a Vietnamese student took a placement test in the summer of 2015, then disappeared until fall. El-Akrich says that faculty began reporting absences to GoldbergBelle instead of him, and one instructor explained that she was reporting missed classes to GoldbergBelle instead of El-Akrich because it was a matter of “homeland security” and it was “the American way.”

Saudi students often had to travel to take monthly English tests so that they could keep scholarships from the Saudi government, El-Akrich said. Absences while taking the tests were supposed to be excused, he says, but some teachers were treating the absences as if they were not allowable, he says. In her lawsuit, Tanner says that an instructor refused to allow a Middle Eastern student into class even though he was on the class roster. El-Akrich and Tanner also say that a different instructor promoted a Vietnamese student but not two Middle Eastern students even though all three students had failing grades. El-Akrich says that Middle Eastern students wrote complaints about alleged disparate treatment, but Donna McNeely, director of the UIS ethics and compliance office, refused to read the complaints.

El-Akrich says that he was placed on administrative leave in February 2016, one week after he complained about a hostile work environment and said that he was going to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He says that administrators were upset that he had reduced work hours for instructors whom he thought had engaged in discriminatory behavior. He also says that he was informed that his work contract would not be renewed after it expired in the spring of 2016.

Tanner’s lawsuit parallels the one filed by El-Akrich. Tanner says that when she complained that Middle Eastern students were subject to discrimination, she, like El-Akrich, was accused of retaliating against instructors whom she believed were practicing discrimination. Tanner was placed on administrative leave along with El-Akrich and was not allowed to return to the IEP.

Ahsan, the plaintiffs’ attorney, says that Middle Eastern students came to UIS because of El-Akrich, and she believes there are only one or two left at the university.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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