* Has served variously as an administrator and professor and numerous colleges and universities
* Views America as a nation infested with white racism
* Believes that he has repeatedly been the victim of racially motivated mistreatment in the workplace
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mark L. McPhail graduated from Emerson College in 1981 with a B.S. degree in Speech and Secondary Education. He subsequently earned an M.A. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University in 1982, and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Public Address at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1987.
McPhail has spent the entirety of his professional career in academia, as both an administrator and professor. According to his LinkedIn profile, he has “held administrative and faculty appointments at Indiana University Northwest, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Southern Methodist University, Miami University of Ohio, the University of Utah, Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, and Emerson College.” More specifically, McPhail was Chair of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs at Southern Methodist University from 2007-2010, and then served as Dean of the College of Arts and Communication at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2010-2015.
Characterizing the United States as a nation replete with racial injustice, McPhail has written numerous articles and essays on racism and other race-related issues in America. His academic papers include such titles as:
Among McPhail’s more notable works was his 2004 article, “A Question of Character: Re(-)signing the Racial Contract.” In that piece, McPhail endorsed Marxist professor and Critical Race Theory pioneer Charles W. Mills’ theory of the “Racial Contract,” which, by Mills’ telling, “can be thought of as an in-group agreement among the privileged to restrict moral and political equality to themselves, and maintain the subordination as unequals of the out-group (here, people of color).” McPhail explained his own understanding of Mills’ theory as follows:
“Mills describes the Racial Contract as an ideological predisposition that informs the beliefs that people of European descent have developed about themselves and others, and the behaviors in which they have engaged as a result of those beliefs. Unlike the idealized ‘social contract’ that accounts for racism either as abstraction or anomaly, the Racial Contract assumes ‘that racism is the norm and that people think of themselves as raced rather than abstract citizens, which any objective history will in fact show.’”
According to McPhail, “black rhetors have sought persistently to re-sign the Racial Contract, and have contributed to the crafting in real terms of the ideals of the social contract.” But “[w]hite rhetors,” he notes, “have largely resisted this re-signing, and have instead embraced and reshaped the Racial Contract in ways more subtle and insidious.” Questioning “Will white people ever be sorry?,” McPhail concludes that: “To re-sign the Racial Contract, whites must collectively atone for the history and consequences of white supremacy. I continue to believe that this collective atonement is unlikely.”
In 2015, McPhail was hired by Indiana University Northwest (IUN) as Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs (EVCAA).
In January 2016, McPhail offered to resign from his position as EVCAA, complaining that IUN’s then-Chancellor, William J. Lowe, was denying him the authority and independence that he needed in order to carry out his duties to maximum effect. But Lowe declined to accept the resignation and promised to give McPhail the things he was seeking.
The situation deteriorated further, however, on May 18, 2016, when Lowe informed McPhail of anonymous complaints that had been made about the latter’s highly troublesome interactions with his colleagues. In response, McPhail on May 22 sent Lowe a second letter of resignation, which included the following passages:
“You informed me that several faculty members had complained about my behavior, alleging that I was ‘heavy handed,’ ‘quick to anger,’ and ‘impatient,’ and that they were ‘scared of me,’ that I ‘did not listen,’ and that I had spoken ill of other individuals at IUN in their absence. You noted that you had also observed these behaviors and that you considered them unprofessional and admonished me from engaging in any behavior in the future that could be interpreted in this manner.
“As I have informed you, I believe that there is significant evidence of hostility toward people of color, in particular people of African descent, at Indiana University Northwest. Evidence of this belief is substantial: extremely poor graduation rates for African American students; the lack of representation of students, faculty, and administrators on a campus located in a community that is predominantly African American; the results of the Campus Climate Survey; and my own personal experiences and professional expertise as an African American administrator and recognized scholar of race relations and communication. Furthermore, in numerous conversations with community members, staff, and faculty at IUN, both black and white, these beliefs have been confirmed and substantiated. While these anecdotal reports might be dismissed or minimized, the extent to which they are supported by empirical evidence suggests that they are both reasonable and accurate. Additionally, I believe that the recent criticisms of my character and competence are motivated as much by subjective hostilities as by legitimate concerns with my performance.”
This time, Chancellor Lowe accepted McPhail’s resignation from his post as EVCAA. McPhail did not leave IUN, however. Instead, he agreed to take a full-time faculty position there.
Notwithstanding his continued employment at IUN, Professor McPhail did not stop complaining about the poor treatment he was allegedly being forced to endure on campus. On June 6, 2016, he filed a complaint with the university’s Office of Affirmative Action and Employment Practices (OAAEP), alleging that during his tenure as EVCAA, he had been a victim of salary discrimination as well as repeated acts of racial hostility.
After conducting a yearlong investigation of McPhail’s aforementioned claims, the OAAEP issued a January 10, 2017 report stating that it had found no basis for the professor’s complaint. McPhail then appealed his case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Gary, Indiana, but that office never responded to him.
Under the terms of his resignation as EVCAA, McPhail went on paid leave for the academic year 2016-17, before commencing his teaching duties in the fall of 2017. In his new role as professor, McPhail continued to decry IUN’s failure to recruit and retain nonwhite faculty, staff, and students. In April 2018, for instance, he organized an on-campus forum titled, “Do Black Minds Matter in Indiana?”
During the 2017-18 academic year, McPhail’s teaching was rated as “inadequate” — a designation based on the the fact that: (a) relatively few students had chosen to enroll in his classes in the first place, and (b) a high percentage of the students who took his classes had either received failing grades or withdrawn from the courses.
McPhail subsequently completed a two-year research fellowship before resuming his teaching duties in the fall 2020 semester. In an effort to help McPhail improve his previously substandard performance as a professor, IUN provided him with “intensive training support” in preparation for his return to the classroom.
But in July 2021, David Klamen, Dean of IUN’s School of the Arts, issued a performance evaluation stating — like its precursor in 2017 — that McPhail’s teaching during the 2020–21 academic year had been “unambiguously inadequate.” And, much like 2017 as well, this latest assessment was derived from: (a) the small number of students who had enrolled in McPhail’s classes because of his poor “reputation as a teacher”; (b) low student-evaluation response rates and scores; and (c) the fact that fully 56% of his students had either failed or withdrawn from his classes.
On August 3, 2021, McPhail challenged Dean Klamen’s negative evaluation of his performance as a professor, stating: “Since working at Indiana University Northwest, I have not received any peer reviews of my teaching, which have been standard practice at every institution of higher education at which I have worked during my career. I have not been made aware of any of the concerns noted in [Dean Klamen’s evaluation] and was not contacted at any time prior to this review or given the opportunity to respond to the inaccurate and incorrect information contained within.”
On August 12, Dean Klamen stated that McPhail’s response was “not sufficient to mitigate the serious and ongoing concerns expressed in the evaluations and ratings,” and he accused McPhail of “attempt[ing] to shift blame to students for [his] own professional shortcomings.” Klamen further told McPhail: “I am recommending to the Executive Vice Chancellor that you teach no classes this upcoming semester. This recommendation is based on the teaching deficiencies noted. I also note that when you were given additional opportunities and time for training that [were] not otherwise provided to other faculty, you were still unable to carry out your teaching responsibilities in a professional manner.” Moreover, Klamen said he would recommend that McPhail’s salary for the upcoming semester be reduced by 75 percent, “commensurate with the removal of [his] teaching responsibilities.”
The following day, August 13, IUN’s Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Vicki Román-Lagunas, notified Professor McPhail by email that he was officially suspended from all teaching duties for the fall 2021 semester, and that his salary would be reduced by three-fourths.
On September 13, 2021, McPhail submitted an appeal to the IUN Faculty Board of Review (FBOR), alleging that his suspension had been imposed in retaliation for his EEOC complaints and his criticisms of the University’s administration. The following morning, three IUN police officers were dispatched to McPhail’s home—150 miles away in Wisconsin—to formally notify him that he was now the subject of a campus police investigation and was forbidden to set foot on IUN’s campus. Two days after that, IUN police officers delivered a letter from Executive Vice Chancellor Román-Lagunas which stated that, based on reports that McPhail had made “on more than one occasion, a threat of physical violence,” the administration “had no reasonable alternative but to proceed with dismissal.”
McPhail’s lawyer, in turn, emailed IUN Senior Associate General Counsel Marcia N. Gonzalez to deny the allegations against the professor and to gather details about the threats he allegedly had made. Ms. Gonzalez responded: “The bases for Prof. McPhail’s termination were that he not only had significant problems with his teaching, service, and commitments to the University as previously documented for him but that he had also made a threat of physical violence, stating words to the effect that ‘the only way to end racism is to kill all the white people.’”
In a follow-up message to McPhail’s attorney, Gonzalez wrote:
“A faculty member stating that all members of a particular race should be killed constitutes serious personal and professional misconduct, particularly when accompanied by the specific warnings that followed this statement, as further described below. It is important to note that such a statement and the accompanying warnings following this statement had to be taken seriously to protect the safety of the University community. The statement, standing alone, was enough to warrant dismissal. However, there were additional prior professional misconduct issues, about which Prof. McPhail had been made aware. Prof. McPhail’s employment was terminated, given the extreme gravity of this statement and the wide range of prior issues. A suspension (either with or without pay) is not appropriate in these circumstances. Prof. McPhail’s statement was reported directly by a very concerned member of the IUN Community to EVCAA Román-Lagunas on or about September 10, and the report was made in confidence. During this same week, Dean Klamen was also advised confidentially by a colleague that he should avoid Prof. McPhail for fear that an ‘incident’ may result and that he should be very concerned if he were to encounter him in person. Each of these reports was separate and distinct, and the individuals involved were not the same. However, in both cases, each person reported that Prof. McPhail was very angry.”
On October 12, 2021, McPhail appealed his dismissal to the FBOR, which in turn conducted an investigation before filing a report which stated that one of McPhail’s male colleagues at IUN had said that: (a) “he had discussed the history of racism in the US with McPhail and had heard McPhail state his view that if indigenous people had killed all the early white settlers, racism would not have established itself in the Americas”; and (b) it was vital to recognize “how deeply McPhail felt about systemic racism in the US.”
Also in its report, the FBOR stated that while it concurred with the IUN administration’s claim that there were valid reasons for concern about McPhail’s classroom performance, the Board had found that “the [a]dministration chose to address these concerns through a process that compromised due process and an action that lacked a fundamental sense of fairness” on three separate fronts:
Thus, in its final analysis, FBOR recommended for the reinstatement of McPhail’s salary and benefits.
But in a December 27, 2021 letter to McPhail, Vice Chancellor Román-Lagunas declared that she was rejecting the FBOR findings and recommendations. Thirty-two days later, Ken Iwama, who had been IUN’s Chancellor since August 2020, echoed Román-Lagunas’ sentiments.
In April 2022, McPhail officially filed a lawsuit against IUN’s trustees and administrators. The charges brought forward by the professor included First Amendment retaliation, violations of right to procedural due process, breach of contract, and race discrimination. As compensation for the mistreatment he had allegedly suffered during his years at IUN, McPhail sought “reinstatement to his tenured position,” “compensation for lost salary,” “emotional distress damages,” and “punitive damages.”
In August 2022, McPhail left IUN and became the Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon.
After conducting an early 2023 review of McPhail’s tenure at IUN, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) defended him and suggested that the school: (a) had been “unwelcoming to faculty members of color,” and (b) “appeared to have been downright hostile [toward McPhail], as evidenced by the presence of racist tropes of incompetent, angry, and physically violent Black men in the language used to justify his dismissal.”