Photo Credits: AGGIE FILE
Akkaziev cites disparate treatment of foreign-born UWP lecturers, dismissal of concerns around ESL readings
Former UC Davis lecturer, Jambul Akkaziev, has sued the University of California for discrimination after being dismissed from his position as a lecturer for the University Writing Program (UWP) in 2019.
Before suing, Akkaziev previously filed complaints against UWP with the UC Davis Chief Compliance Officer, Wendi Delmendo, and with the Harassment and Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program (HDAPP).
A UC Davis document that Akkaziev acquired through a public records request assisted by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) lists the 2017-18 new UWP lecturer hires, with all names blacked out except for Akkaziev’s; it also lists the citizenship status of each lecturer hire.
Document image provided to The Aggie by Jambul Akkaziev.
After being hired in 2017, Akkaziev filed his first complaint with HDAPP given that the hiring paperwork asked if he was a U.S. citizen—which could be used as evidence of an employer’s intent to discriminate against an individual based on their national origin. The DFEH found reasonable cause to believe that violations of Title IX occurred to some regard and sent Akkaziev a right to sue notice on April 5, 2019.
Akkaziev, despite asking Delmendo how the list was put together, never received a response.
“How can you tell if somebody was born in the US or wasn’t?” he asked. “Is it based on their name? Is it based on their accent? Why would anybody do that?”
The Aggie reached out to UCOP for comment and was told via email that “It would not be appropriate to comment on this active and pending lawsuit.”
Akkaziev taught in the English as Second Language (ESL) component of UWP, and while teaching UWP 23 (Advanced Academic Reading and Writing Multilingual Students) wrote to his then-immediate supervisor, Elaine McCollom, and Dana Ferris, then-director of the ESL program, with concerns that the assigned readings incited “a certain degree of resentment” from Chinese students in class due to their “perceived message of American cultural superiority.”
Readings for one class midterm included a CNN opinion article, “In China, ‘Everyone is Guilty of Corruption’”, in which one high-tech Chinese businessman said, “Your business can’t survive a day if you are not corrupt.”
“Most of my class are Chinese students who are just sitting there, reading this about themselves—they just stepped off the plane and came to this new country and are studying at this university,” Akkaziev said. “That was essentially one of the most painful moments in terms of my teaching career, because I had to tell my students that I did not choose these readings.”
Another reading, an excerpt from Raymond A. Schroth’s “The Plagiarism Plague”, does note that plagiarism isn’t just a “foreign import” but also has a section called “The China Syndrome,” which attributes the “phenomenon” to cultural differences, such as the “Chinese pressure to conform,” deference toward a professor and understanding of term papers as a regurgitation of information.
Akkaziev wanted to add a fifth reading, a New York Times summary of the U.S. Supreme Court exonerating former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell of corruption and bribery to present a more expansive, less anti-Chinese narrative of corruption.
In McCollom’s email response, which Akkaziev provided to The California Aggie, McCollom responded by saying that in looking for course readings, she couldn’t avoid “the Chinese issue” because of the large number of Chinese international students in the U.S. and that academic ethics were a problem with students coming out of China.
She also said she didn’t think adding that fifth would fit the topic of the exam, “Are human beings inherently corrupt?”
“We particularly want students to look at those issues [ethics and corruption] within their own societies and countries,” she wrote. “As long as open discussion is allowed and different opinions can be voiced, the university is, in many ways, a place for students’ worldviews to be challenged.”
Ferris, in her email follow-up to McCollom and Akkaziev, suggested that the readings could be good for Chinese international students to have “a heads-up about the issue” and others’ perspectives on it.
When McCollom introduced the midterm readings, she said in her email, she explained that the Paper 1 readings had been written by and for Americans, but the midterm readings provided the opinion of someone in China.
“One of them said, ‘Oh, then this will be worse!’ and, again, they all laughed,” she wrote.
Some students in Akkaziev’s class, however, weren’t laughing—at least, not according to four anonymous student responses evaluating Akkaziev’s UWP 23 class, which he provided to The California Aggie.
One respondent noted that once Akkaziev saw the reading materials discussing Chinese corruption, he “gave us [the students] respect.”
“He [Prof. Akkaziev] stands on the side of students,” said one student’s response. “When he found the articles were offensive to Chinese [students], he talked to other instructors directly. He is the first instructor I believe who really care[s] about students.”
“Racist readings centered around the Asian community,” one comment said.
“Hope [to] change some biased reading[s] in future — the topic is kind of sensitive, so please provide some more objective materials,” another student wrote.
Akkaziev said that regardless of beliefs on the Chinese political system, it was important to ensure his students weren’t feeling denigrated, attacked and insulted.
“To criticize Chinese politics, that’s not the point,” he said. “Saying Asian people are corrupt, that Asian people are shifty—those are cliche racist tropes that have been used for centuries. Why is this happening in this program?”
While Ferris said she couldn’t comment on Akkaziev’s pending litigation and on UWP personnel matters, she clarified in an email to The Aggie that the supervisors of UWP 1 and the UWP ESL program provide suggested readings for consistency across multiple sections of the same courses.
This quarter, for UWP 7M (Multilingual Writing), readings with student experience content—as designated in a spreadsheet Ferris provided to The Aggie—include “America, Say My Name” from Viet Thanh Nguyen and “SERU Survey Report: International Students’ Experiences and Concerns During the Pandemic”, conducted by Igor Chirikov and Krista M. Soria.
“Generally speaking, our program philosophy is that lecturers are professionals and capable of choosing and designing their own material,” she said. “We change suggested readings regularly — at least every year and often from quarter to quarter.”
Akkaziev relied on the common ESL curriculum to teach his courses, though according to an UWP Personnel Committee letter from 2018 recommending Akkaziev’s reappointment for 2018-19, he adapted based on student need—for example, the committee pointed out, he “incorporated more explicit grammar instruction” to supplement the curriculum.
Despite the personnel recommendation, Akkaziev said he was told Ferris had a target on his back after he raised concerns about the ESL curriculum.
UWP lecturer, L1 (kept anonymous given that they could potentially be deposed during the lawsuit), told Akkaziev during a private conversation, that “Dana hates you.”
“Do not cross Dana (esp. with criticism of anything),” L1 also told Akkaziev. “You might get black-listed.”
Out of his 11-person lecturer cohort, Akkaziev, along with five other lecturers—four of whom, including him, were people of color, and three of whom, including him, were immigrants—was not reappointed for the 2019-20 school year, which led him to file another complaint with HDAPP asking for an investigation into disparate treatment of non-U.S. born lecturers.
A professor in UWP, P1 (similarly kept anonymous given potential deposition), sent Akkaziev an email in June 2018 stating that no foreign-born lecturer that they knew of had reached continuing status in UWP since the program became an independent unit in 2014.
When Akkaziev filed the complaint through HDAPP, he also sent the email to his UWP colleagues and other UC Davis administrators. Delmendo reviewed the concern and said after preliminary review, she had not discovered evidence suggesting a discriminatory motive for the non-reappointment, adding that the list of US born and non-US born lecturers existed only because it was requested by the DFEH.
The Office of the Campus Counsel, in its Frequently Asked Questions, says that UC Davis is only responsible for providing “existing documents and records”.
“It is not appropriate for you to litigate your personnel grievance using mass email distribution to departmental colleagues,” she said, pointing Akkaziev toward UC-Academic Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) Local 2023, the union local representing Davis lecturers and librarians.
Akkaziev, in his email response, said it was unfortunate that statement was a “thinly veiled, verging on illegal” attempt to silence him in sharing public information and asked Delmendo to follow up on a variety of issues, including whether she would continue review of the report and if tacit bias was addressed in hiring decisions.
She did not respond to him, but said in a separate email to The Aggie that she disagreed with Akkaziev’s characterization of their communications, given that the university was “generally not permitted to disclose such documents.”
Section 6254(c) of the California Public Records Act, says that disclosure of “personnel […] files” is not required, given that it would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Without a response from Delmendo, Akkaziev filed a grievance with UC-AFT in conjunction with Tarone Bittner, field representative for UC-AFT Local 2023.
UC-AFT President Mia McIver said in an email statement to The Aggie that filing a grievance is a protected activity and UC management cannot punish union members for filing.
“However, at UC management’s insistence […] an allegation of discrimination grieved under Article 4—Non-Discrimination in Employment is forwarded to the campus’s Title IX/Equal Educational Opportunity office for investigation,” McIver said.
For Akkaziev, that meant his grievance went to HDAPP, where he communicated with Danesha Nichols, Director of UC Davis Office of Harassment and Discrimination about the non-reappointments evidencing “disparate treatment and targeting” of lecturers of color, LGBT+ lecturers, non-Christian lecturers and immigrants.
He pointed to an example of one female, non-Christian lecturer of color and one male, Caucasian lecturer who had both not been recommended for continuing lecturer status, in which the latter received continuing status and the former did not.
Nichols, in her email, closed the case by citing that in UWP demographics, there was no evidence of discriminatory hiring practices and noting that it seemed like the basis for non-reappointments was due to reduced need for ESL lecturers based on enrollment fluctuations. She noted that some non-reappointed lecturers were white.
“As with academia in general, there is a need to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive community and I am of the understanding that the UWP continues to make this a priority,” Nichols wrote in Oct. 2019.
As of Sept. 2020, of the 87 lecturers and professors listed on the UWP site, 5 are people of color, meaning over 93% of UWP professors are white. There are no Black lecturers or professors.
In contrast, 23% of UC Davis undergraduate students, as of Fall 2019, are white. At UC Davis, all students—barring those who pass the Upper Division Composition Exam—must take an upper division UWP class.
“And this is in California — how can you look at this and say ‘This is okay, this is normal?’” Akkaziev said.
With regard to enrollment, Ferris said in her email to The Aggie that enrollment in ESL UWP classes has fluctuated over time.
“The reasons for the drop are a little complicated,” Ferris wrote. “Part of it is the Trump effect — international student numbers […] in the U.S. dropped for each of the first couple years he was in office. Another factor was that in 2017, the UC Regents put a cap on each campus as to how many non-resident students they could enroll, and this can be observed in the drop of numbers in 2018 and 2019.”
She also said that while the program had planned for 128 ESL sections for 2019-20, when enrollment and placement was finalized, only 54 sections were necessary.
Still, Akkaziev said to Nichols that while he didn’t dispute the need for reduced ESL classes, he was “astounded” that three of the six non-reappointed lecturers in his cohort were people of color who had more experience or more advanced degrees in the field than their white counterparts.
Nichols never replied. On the UC-AFT side, McIver shared that once a formal grievance is filed, UC management attempts to hold itself accountable through both hearing evidence and deciding if they have committed a violation.
“If no resolution is achieved in the three-step grievance process, we have the right to arbitration, in which a neutral third-party arbitrator hears evidence from both sides and issues a final judgment,” she said in the email.
Bittner said he and Akkaziev dropped the grievance they filed, since Akkaziev decided he would rather go to court than use arbitration to resolve the dispute.
Akkaziev, now represented by Sacramento employment attorney Calvin Chang, said he wants to be paid the same salary and benefits other lecturers in the program were afforded and hopes the department can move forward with increased fairness and transparency.
He said the Spring Quarter before he was not reappointed for summer, he received emails from Ferris telling all lecturers that everyone would get reappointed; his contract was supposed to be renewed on July 1, but he received an email on June 24 telling him he was no longer re-appointed.
“I asked Dana what the criteria were for deciding to get a reappointment,” he said. “She said, ‘I’m not in a position to tell you this information’ [in an email].”
When asked by The Aggie, Ferris said via email that pre-six lecturers, lecturers with their contracts renewed annually instead of every three years, like post-six or continuing lecturers, are reviewed each year by the UWP Personnel Committee.
While the Committee provides a recommendation for a reappointment decision through discussing and evaluating a lecturer’s student evaluations, observation report, cover letter, CV and teaching materials, Ferris said, they don’t make the final decision.
“The UWP submits the report to the Dean’s office,” Ferris said. “Final reappointment decisions are made by the Dean’s office, and they’re contingent on budget and enrollment considerations and departmental/programmatic needs in addition to the performance review.”
Akkaziev said the point of the lawsuit isn’t to get more pay than other lecturers or to receive other special treatment. Though he said he would like to be reinstated because of how much he enjoys working with students, he said that it’s not his end goal—it’s a UWP culture more considerate of international students’ experiences and not discriminatory toward lecturers who are not cis, straight, white Christian men.
“If I was to be reinstated, I want to have that be under a changed environment and program culture,” he said. “I love working with students, I love teaching, I love my job. I’m not asking for privilege, but of course, you don’t want to feel like you’re treated by administrators as a second-rate, second-class citizen. We can’t just let people get away with things like this.”
Written by: Janelle Marie Salanga — firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: The original version of this article used the spelling ‘Farris’ instead of ‘Ferris,’ did not clarify Ferris’ response as being via email, called the 11-person lecturer cohort an internship cohort and said that Akkaziev was not reappointed in 2018-2019 instead of 2019-20. The article has been updated to correct these errors.