College and University Faculty and Staff Issues: Allegations of Favoritism or Discrimination

If you're facing an allegation of favoritism or discrimination as a college or university employee, you may be worried about facing a school disciplinary system and how this can affect your career. The college disciplinary system can be a labyrinth of regulations, and policies and procedures vary widely from state to state and even college to college. Whether you're a university or college professor, adjunct faculty, coach, administrator, adjunct faculty, or staff, the consequences of an accusation against you can be serious.

During your employment, you can face discrimination or favoritism charges based on violations of federal or state law or violations of your college or university's employee handbook. Fortunately, attorney Joseph D. Lento is well-versed in defending university employees from discrimination claims based on school policies, school regulations, employee handbooks, and any allegations of favoritism or discrimination that don't rise to the level of violating federal law.

  1. EEO ViolationsThe U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate based on a protected category under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Protected categories including those based on race, religion, and sex. While many college and university employees face discrimination or favoritism allegations based on EEO violations, you can still face discrimination charges based on factors other than those protected by state or federal civil rights laws.
  2. Other Violations Many accusations of favoritism or discrimination in the college setting are grounded in race, sex, religion, or other class protected by federal anti-discrimination laws. However, as a college employee, you could also face allegations that you favor another employee or a student, or discriminate against them, for other reasons. Non-EEO favoritism or discrimination can involve:
  • Favoring a student or discriminating against another in grading, selection for internships, recommendations, competition for selective classes, research positions, and more
  • Favoring an employee or discriminating against another concerning employee evaluations, raises, bonuses, promotions, budgeting, workload allocations, workplace flexibility, mentoring, or other career development

Some colleges have specific policies prohibiting favoritism. For example, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro issued a Policy on Undue Favoritism in 1995. UNCG's policy states that:

[T]he conferral of any University benefit, reward or privilege (e.g., admission, grades, employment, promotion, salary increase, preferential job assignments etc.), is a conflict of interest with an employee's obligation to exercise fairness and professional judgement in the conduct of University business.

The university policy also points out that favoritism may violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws and foster a “lack of respect, distrust, and other morale problems which undermine professionalism and hinder fulfillment of the University's mission.”

Similarly, the University of Santa Clara gives its employees specific guidance on "favoritism, cronyism, and nepotism," warning that this is an ethical violation unfair to students. Both UNC Greenboro and Santa Clara treat favoritism and discrimination as misconduct that warrants investigation, disciplinary proceedings, and actions up to and including suspension and dismissal.

Favoritism Accusations from Students

For example, a student may claim you favor your research assistants, athletes, or people with blonde hair. Or a student may claim that you discriminate against athletes, people in Greek organizations, or people with tattoos. Some examples of common favoritism accusations include:

  • A student who believes that a fellow student in a class is receiving favorable grading or deadlines because of their status as an athlete,
  • Accusations that a student employee such as a professor's teaching assistant or research assistant is receiving preferential treatment over other fellow students, and
  • Complaints that a medical student receives preferential treatment from the professor who supervised their work in a research lab over the summer.

Even if your school's policy manuals don't expressly address favoritism or discrimination allegations, an accusation could still affect your annual performance review, whether you make tenure, future salary increases, or promotions.

Favoritism can also become illegal or a violation of federal laws if it rises to the level of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation against another employee or student. Often there is a fine line between accusations that you've violated school policies and accusations that you've violated federal or state law. That is why it's essential that you hire a lawyer well-versed in defending college and university employees in both accusations of EEO and non-EEO discrimination matters.

Avoiding the Appearance of Partiality

Often accusations of favoritism or discrimination involve what a student perceives as unfair or unequal treatment. To avoid the appearance of favoritism, you can work to stress certain qualities in your interactions with students and staff:

  • Impartiality: People expect professors and other staff to treat everyone equally, whether in class, a lab, student support, financial aid help, or in any dealings with students or employees. As in the rest of life, we all like some people more than others. But even subtle differences in partiality between others can result in the perception of unfairness or favoritism. You can avoid the impression of partiality by paying careful attention to your behavior and reactions to all college students and staff.
  • Respect: It's important to show respect for everyone in your professional interactions at your college or university. Respect involves treating all people with courtesy and politeness. Refrain from name-calling and listen carefully to everyone, particularly in class discussions. Pay careful attention to your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice in your professional dealings. All of this can be challenging when you are frustrated. But remaining calm, civil, and polite will allow others, especially students,