A long-time professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management is suing the school alleging that he was wrongly suspended by Anderson Dean Antonio Bernardo last year and that the suspension resulted in loss of most of his consulting income. The professor, Gordon Klein, is alleging that the school put him on leave for a “well-timed publicity stunt” to distract from the school’s plummeting MBA rankings and what he calls Anderson’s reputation as an “inhospitable place” for persons of color.
Klein, who has been teaching at Anderson since 1981, is suing for actual damages to his reputation and income, accusing Dean Bernardo and the university of “fraud, oppression, and/or malice” for having engaged in what he terms “unlawful conduct.” He is also asking for punitive damages “for the sake of example and by way of punishing defendants for their unlawful conduct in an amount to be proven at trial.”
A spokesperson for UCLA Anderson told Poets&Quants, “We don’t comment on personnel litigation matters, but we are looking forward to having the facts fully addressed through the litigation process.”
Since taking over as dean in July of 2019, Bernardo has seen the school’s U.S. News rankings decline only slightly by two places to 18th from 16th. More importantly, perhaps, Anderson’s cross-town rival, the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, has since overtaken UCLA in MBA rankings. USC’s MBA program placed 16th, two spots ahead of UCLA this year. In Bloomberg Businessweek‘s newest ranking published last month, Anderson has fallen to 16th place from 12th in 2019, while USC is ranked 14th.
‘PLAY IT BEFORE A JURY AND UCLA IS DEAD MEAT’
Another professor, Eric Rasmusen at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business who has had his own share of controversy, believes Klein would gain a sympathetic ear from a jury if the case goes to trial. Two years ago, Rasmusen ignited a firestorm of criticism from students, school officials, and others when he tweeted an article titled “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably.”
In a blog post, Rasmusen notes that Klein “grew up in Detroit, went to public schools, plays keyboard gospel music in black churches, was whistleblower against someone who was trying to reduce the number of poor hispanic students, etc. Play it before a jury, and UCLA is dead meat. I don’t know how much he deserves to collect in money damages from UCLA, but he’d collect 10 times as much, plus punitive damages, and the judge wouldn’t want to remittitur it down to a reasonable level. Maybe Klein would even get to own the Anderson School of Management building at the end of the day.”
A year ago, Rasmusen launched an online petition calling for the firing of Dean Bernardo. “In suspending Klein, Dr. Bernardo has shown himself unfit for the job of Dean,” according to the petition. “His panicky response to Twitter criticism of a colleague and his failure to back up instructors when they try to maintain standards is disgraceful.” The petition at change.org has attracted 1,285 signatures.
Klein found himself the protagonist in a national news story last summer when he responded to an Asian-American student who asked him for a “no harm” final for Black students eight days after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. In a June 2nd email last year, the undergraduate student majoring in business and managerial economics was asking that low grades in Klein’s “Principles of Taxation” course not be counted for the Black students in the classroom due to the “unjust murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.” Though unnamed in the lawsuit, the student, Leslie Giovanny, graduated this year and now works as a production finance intern at Disney, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Klein, recalling the incident in detail in an op-ed piece that announced his lawsuit, said he was shocked by the request. The email, he wrote, “struck me as deeply patronizing and offensive to the same black students he claimed to care so much about.”
‘I WAS ATTACKED FOR BEING A WHITE MAN AND ‘WOEFULLY RACIST’
The professor dashed off an email response 20 minutes later that would ultimately go viral and lead to headlines, death threats, and his suspension. “Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black half-Asian?,” asked Klein in his email. “What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half? Also, do you have any idea if any students are from Minneapolis? I assume that they are probably especially devastated as well. I am thinking that a white student from there might possibly be even more devastated by this, especially because some might think that they’re racist even if they are not.”
He says he wrapped up his reply by citing Martin Luther King’s vision of a colorblind world where people are judged solely by the content of their character, “making it clear that I had no intention of treating any students differently on the basis of their skin color. I thought this would do it and we’d move on with the class final and, just as important, summer break. I was naive.”
Within hours, students were calling for his head. “Soon after, they circulated a petition demanding I be fired; within a day or two, nearly 20,000 had signed — without knowing anything about me or taking into account, as far as I could tell, the implications of non-color-blind grading,” explains Klein. “I was attacked for being a white man and “woefully racist.” On June 5, three days after I was first emailed, I was suspended amid a growing online campaign directed at me.”
A SUSPENSION FROM ANDERSON’S DEAN WHO KLEIN ALLEGES WAS TRYING TO DISTRACT ATTENTION AWAY FROM THE SCHOOL’S DECLINING RANKINGS
Klein began receiving death threats on voicemail and email. The professor cited one email in particular in his op-ed piece. The email, dated June 11, read: “‘You are a typical bigoted, prejudiced and racist dirty, filthy, crooked, arrogant Jew kike mother f**ker! Too bad Hitler and the Nazis are not around to give you a much needed Zyklon B shower.’ About a week after this whole thing first blew up, there were police officers stationed outside my house. (It would take UCLA’s threat manager, Chris Silva, another ten days to check in with me to make sure I was okay.)”
In Klein’s telling of the story, Anderson administrators became “rattled.” “But not because of the fact that my life was now being threatened. The problem was Anderson’s reputation. It hadn’t granted an African-American professor tenure in decades. It had but a handful of tenured Latino professors. Black students made up about two percent of the student body. And men outnumbered women roughly two-to-one, leading many students to call Anderson the MANderson School of MANagement.”
The professor then goes on to attack current Dean Bernardo. “So, even though a university administrator made it clear the university could not take any action against me — on the grounds that there was no known cause for taking such action — Anderson’s Dean Antonio Bernardo took matters into his own hands. He apparently reasoned that a well-timed publicity stunt might distract attention away from the school’s reputation as an inhospitable place for persons of color — to say nothing of its plummeting rankings in U.S. News and World Report and Bloomberg Businessweek.
‘I HAD BEEN DEEMED RADIOACTIVE. I WAS CONFUSED AND HURT’
“Without any deliberation I was aware of, Bernardo suspended and banned me from campus. Then, like a well-choreographed dance, the Anderson administration started attacking my character on social media. As I documented in my legal claim, on June 3, one day after I received the first email, the Anderson School’s Twitter account sent out a message: “Respect and equality for all are core principles at UCLA Anderson. It is deeply disturbing to learn of this email, which we are investigating. We apologize to the students who received it and to all those who have been as upset and offended by it as we are ourselves.” This implied I didn’t believe in equality for all — when that was exactly what I believed and continue to believe. Judson Caskey, who oversees the accounting program at Anderson, was tasked with monitoring my outgoing emails. I had been deemed radioactive.”
“I was confused and hurt. From the start, my whole point had been that all students, irrespective of skin color, should be treated the same. And now…this?”
After an investigation of the incident by the school, Klein was reinstated less than three weeks later. But he says that several of his consulting clients dropped him after the public suspension.Less than three weeks after this whole thing blew up, I was reinstated. But this story is not over. “That cost me the lion’s share of my annual income,” he wrote. “The students involved in this escapade may have moved on to other causes. I have not. I’m not sure I ever will.”
‘ANDERSON HAS NOT GRANTED TENURE TO A BLACK PROFESSOR IN OVER FOUR DECADES’
His lawsuit against Dean Bernardo and the University of California system, he explains, was filed in California Superior Court in Los Angeles. He claims in the suit that the Anderson School ‘hastily buckled” under the pressure of negative publicity and sought permission from the University to impose disciplinary sanctions, including terminating his employment. When the University rebuffed the Anderson School, Bernardo “abruptly suspended” him from his teaching duties, “banned him from its campus, and hired others to replace him.”
The complaint notes that “out of approximately 200 faculty members, only one black professor has tenure and the School has not granted tenure to a black professor in over four decades. Furthermore, although the School once was one of the elite schools of management in the United States, its ranking has plummeted to number 18 under the current administration, according to U.S. News and World Report. Even worse, out of 119 schools evaluated, Bloomberg Businessweek ranks the School 53rd for ‘Learning’ due to its shortcomings in teaching “innovation, problem-solving, and strategic thinking.” Notably, in his September 17, 2021 message to alumni and students about the Businessweek ratings, Dean Bernardo omitted this fact.”
According to Klein’s lawsuit,Dean Bernardo disparaged him “to alumni and the general public based on the private communications between Plaintiff and the student who had requested preferential race-based grading policies. Dean Bernardo even went so far as to publicly disclose the adverse personnel action the School had improperly imposed on Plaintiff.”
KLEIN SAYS HIS OWN FAMILY MEMBERS HAVE BEEN DEVASTATED BY VIOLENT RAPE AND MURDER
The lawsuit singles out Dean Bernardo in other ways as well. Klein claims that the dean knew or should have known, including from examining his personnel file and conferring with UCLA’s Discrimination Prevention Office, that Klein had “an unblemished record of service to all Anderson School students, regardless of race, in four decades of teaching at the Anderson School” and that he “long has opposed all identity-based discrimination, having been devastated by the violent rape and murder of his own family members due to anti-Jewish persecution in Eastern Europe decades ago.”
In his op-ed, Klein says that “no employee should ever cower in fear of his employer’s power to silence legitimate points of view, and no society should tolerate government-sponsored autocrats violating constitutional mandates.”
He also offers a parting thought: “This is not just about principle. It’s also about the United States’ ability to compete. Anderson, like elite business schools across the country, is supposed to be training the next generation of innovators. The people who will muster the imagination and fortitude to create life-changing technologies and lead groundbreaking multinationals. If we don’t maintain our standards — if we’re not allowed to push all of our students to do their very best — we will be disarming unilaterally. I refuse to do that, and I’m convinced, this recent episode notwithstanding, that most of my students and colleagues feel the same way.”