8,600 Dollar Emails

The University of Maryland (UMD) has a wonderful reputation.  It has academic diversity, a rich Jewish life, and offers a great education with a price that’s right for parents worried about retirement.

Yet, all is not right.

On October 30, 2018, UMD’s President Wallace Loh announced his retirement after an investigative report  documented inadequate oversight by the Athletics Department following the tragic death of a football player.  Many were outraged that the football coach had not been dismissed, since it involved his program.

Lesson? Self-policing is a tricky problem.

Which brings up a less drastic, but still worrisome UMD story: What’s the issue about charging 8600+ dollars for a bunch of emails? 

Alums for Campus Fairness:

Some of you may have heard of Melissa Landa, a former UMD professor, who was unceremoniously dismissed from the school on June 6, 2017.  In technical terms, her contract was not renewed after ten years during which she received awards for excellence in teaching and research.

This story deserves renewed attention.

Landa was an assistant professor for the Undergraduate Teacher Preparation Program at the University of Maryland.  In May, 2017, one month before her termination, she was honored with an Exceptional Scholarship Award.

The back story is that Professor Landa was the founding member of the Oberlin chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a national non-profit that I helped to found with two colleagues from Vassar, Susan Julien-Levitt and Laurie Josephs. ACF confronts bias, promotes civil debate and censures campus anti-Semitism.

We are meeting a need, given the pernicious nature of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the ever-increasing intolerance toward those who fail to subscribe to an anti-Zionist ideology. It’s through this work that I’ve come to know Professor Landa, who has made a real contribution to the betterment of the academy.

How? Professor Landa did important work for Oberlin College, helping former President Krislov and his Board of Trustees identify anti-Semitic material posted by an Oberlin Professor.  Professors, like other Americans, are entitled to free speech, but a college is also entitled to have a say about hate speech or anti-Semitism if it is floated by someone given a platform by the school.

Oberlin proceeded judiciously, and the professor was eventually dismissed, sending an important message about Oberlin College’s position on hate speech and anti-Semitism.

Differences & Collegiality:

Professor Landa believes that her activism at Oberlin and pro-Israel views triggered a backlash from those in charge of her department at UMD.

Some of her complaints include:

Going Through Channels:

Put yourself in Professor Landa’s shoes – you believe that the department is no longer a friendly place, and your career goals are being stymied. It’s difficult to fight a large institution, especially one so dear to you.

Professor Landa hoped to resolve her issues through internal channels. First, she approached the Ombuds officer, a UMD resource designed to find constructive solutions to administrative disputes. Nothing came of it.

She then filed a grievance, feeling unsupported because of her political and identity interests. The Board ruled in favor of the leaders of her department, with the caveat that:

“In the interest of the program, the Hearing Board hopes that a professional path for Dr. Landa can be found that harmonizes her teaching and scholarly interests with the needs of the Department.”

No harmonizing occurred.

The grievance report came out on June 5th, and on June 8th, 2017, a few scant days later, Professor Landa was informed by email that her contract would not be renewed.

Retaliation is a serious matter, both in corporate and academic circles. Believing that retaliation and political/religious bias contributed to the loss of her job, Professor Landa pursued the last remaining internal remedy.  She filed a complaint with UMD’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct (OCRSM), to no avail.

There are always two sides to every story. UMD will surely argue that three review procedures were employed, and there was nothing unfair or untoward about the findings.

Yet, as we see with the Football Program debacle, it’s difficult to self-police one’s institution, and Professor Landa’s questions about retaliation are of concern.

To quote an open letter to the Diamondback, the UMD newspaper by former students:

“It is not right to dismiss, without cause, one of the few professors who is an expert in helping students examine their own biases. Now, more than ever, this university needs Landa’s expertise to help us move forward together as a community.”

Looking for Resolution:

It’s over a year since Professor Landa’s termination.  The dust has settled, and Landa has a new job at the Academic Engagement Network (AEN) helping campuses around the country provide an improved culture for talking through differences, something Landa knows a lot about.

But Professor Landa is not willing to give up redress for what she believes was discriminatory treatment.  Landa plans to have outside authorities adjudicate what happened at UMD, believing the University’s mechanisms for self-policing failed her.

Having an objective outside party examine the issue should be embraced by all.

If the courts find for UMD, it reinforces that the school can constructively self-examine. If the courts side with Professor Landa, it will expose UMD as having serious problems with supervision from the top down that extend beyond the Football Program.

It is a useful exercise.

8,600 Dollar Emails:

In pursuit of her upcoming legal claims, Dr. Landa requested copies of emails from UMD to prepare her case. Specifically, Dr. Landa requested four months of emails about her between two UMD employees.  The charge for this service was eight thousand, six hundred and twenty-nine dollars and fifty two cents. Yes, you heard right.

In a written letter to Landa the University of Maryland’s counsel claims the cost to review emails between Landa’s supervisors “will take  119.13 hours to gather, review and prepare the electronic  mail  records” to a total of $8,629.52 dollars.

  • Let’s granulate this a bit.
  • If we assume an eight hour work day, with a half an hour off for lunch, one hundred and nineteen hours translates to almost SIXTEEN non-stop days of work; all to review and redact four months of emails between two individuals containing Landa’s name. That is a lot of time.

Does this cost need to sit on Professor Landa’s shoulders? That’s the position of the university. One can see why Landa feels like she’s dealing with a powerful behemoth.  It’s not uncommon for corporations to put legally allowable roadblocks in front of plaintiffs in order to wear them down, but we are talking here about an esteemed public university, and not some cold corporate giant, or are we?

Where are the social justice advocates when we need them?

One compassionate voice in this story comes from United States Senator Chris Van Hollen who on June 8th, 2018 wrote to the University regarding the “high” cost of these emails, asking them to reconsider.  Unfortunately, UMD has not budged.

  • Perhaps UMD can be gracious, and just release the emails, at minimal cost. Or, perhaps they don’t feel compelled to. Or, perhaps where there’s smoke, sometimes there’s fire.
  • One more thing, it seems that the Federal Government may be taking up this case on the grounds of discrimination.

It is sad that it has come to this.

Unquestionably, the University of Maryland has an admirable brand among Jewish students and the general public nationwide. The fact that no middle ground could be found between Landa and her department is truly puzzling.  Not everybody gets along. That’s okay – but healthy systems manage disagreements in respectful ways.

Let’s circle back to UMD’s original internal recommendation.

“In the interest of the program, the Hearing Board hopes that a professional path for Dr. Landa can be found that harmonizes her teaching and scholarly interests with the needs of the Department.”

Something seems off here and a person’s career was affected.

Sadly, UMD just admitted to weak supervision of its football program.  One wonders if governance is an issue here as well.

I guess I just want to ask:

University of Maryland, are you OK?

About the Author
Dr. Mark Banschick is a co-founder of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a partner with StandWithUs. He completed his medical degree at Tel Aviv University, followed by specialty training at Georgetown and New York-Presbyterian Hospitals. He is the author of The Intelligent Divorce book series (yes, an oxymoron) and writes regularly for Psychology Today. Mark practices child, adolescent and adult psychiatry in Katonah, New York. Divorce Website: www.TheIntelligentDivorce.Com ACF Website: www.CampusFairness.org