Lawsuit claims Northwestern’s faculty hiring practices violate federal law

A lawsuit filed Tuesday against Northwestern University opened a new front in the legal battle against affirmative action, alleging that its law school hires less-qualified people of color and women over White men for faculty positions in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.

The complaint, brought by a group called Faculty, Alumni and Students Opposed to Racial Preferences, targets Northwestern’s law school. But the allegations amount to a sweeping criticism of American universities, alleging that they care more about diversity than merit or compliance with federal law.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Illinois, argues that left-wing professors and administrators openly flout anti-discrimination provisions by hiring “women and minorities with mediocre and undistinguished records over white men who have better credentials, better scholarship, and better teaching ability.”

Jonathan Mitchell, a prominent lawyer behind the suit, promised to challenge similar practices at other universities and invited those with “incriminating evidence” to contact him.

University spokesman Jon Yates did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Former law school dean Daniel Rodriguez, one of the defendants named in the lawsuit, declined to comment. Others named in the suit did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

But Paul Gowder, one of the Black law professors mentioned in the lawsuit as an example of someone who benefited from racial preferences, strongly pushed back against the allegations.

“This is absolute racist garbage,” he said in an interview, making clear that he was speaking for himself and not the law school or the university. “My record speaks for itself. I would gleefully put it up against the records of any of the people who were supposedly passed over.”

The case comes amid a wide-ranging conservative pushback against efforts to ensure that American institutions of all sorts reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the country. Liberal advocates contend that generations of discrimination have given unfair advantages to White men, and the murder of George Floyd in 2020 brought urgency to efforts to right past wrongs. But others argue that such efforts have gone too far and are harmful and unfair, challenging them with legislation and lawsuits.

Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed on the 60th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The new suit follows the Supreme Court decisions a year ago to invalidate race-conscious admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, rulings that upended decades of work by elite schools to mitigate historic discrimination and create more-diverse student bodies. These decisions were centered on the admissions process and did not directly address consideration of race in hiring, but many scholars said at the time that the court had opened the door to a challenge like the one filed Tuesday.

The court’s decision in the college admissions cases also prompted colleges across the country to scrutinize ways that race is used as a factor in admissions and other arenas. And it set off a legal onslaught challenging programs intended to diversify public and private institutions, including lawsuits against companies alleging discrimination against White people.

Tuesday’s suit is focused on Northwestern, a highly selective private university outside Chicago, alleging that for more than a decade its law school has worked to hire as many non-White and non-male faculty members as possible, leading the school to choose less-qualified candidates over White men with better credentials. The suit names three White men it says were not hired despite strong qualifications, and names four Black woman and one Black man who it alleges were offered faculty positions because of their race and/or gender, painting several of these academics in harshly unflattering terms.

The lawsuit names Northwestern as well as the dean of its law school, a former dean, two other law professors and two editors of the Northwestern University Law Review as defendants. It claims that the school’s law review uses illegal race and sex preferences in selecting its members, editors and articles, rather than choosing based on merit.

It includes calls for changes in the school’s policies and practices and for a court monitor to oversee faculty hiring, promotion and compensation; law review decisions; and the university’s diversity offices.

The group also sent letters to more than 100 universities on Tuesday, warning them that the plaintiff group intends to sue other schools that deploy “these illegal, discriminatory practices,” and warning anyone currently or formerly affiliated with the university to retain records and communications related to faculty hiring issues and law review decisions.

“We’re just getting started,” said Mitchell, the plaintiff attorney, who has argued multiple cases before the Supreme Court, clerked for the late Justice Antonin Scalia and successfully represented former president Donald Trump in a case to allow him to remain on the ballot in Colorado this year. He also notched a significant victory last month when the high court struck down a ban on bump stocks for semiautomatic weapons.

The suit includes unnamed plaintiffs that it says could be applicants for jobs at any number of universities, which Mitchell said gives them standing to sue “any university we want.” None of the professors mentioned in the complaint were aware of the lawsuit or had any role in providing information, he said.

“Every university is doing this,” he added.

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