Dr. Joseph Mwantuali said that he didn’t know what to expect when he joined the French and Francophone studies department at Hamilton College in upstate New York. It was a small unit, with fewer than five professors, and Mwantuali, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was the only faculty member of color.
“It was my first job in the United States, so it was a pretty new milieu for me,” he said. “I was just trying to see how things go.”
According to Mwantuali, how things would go became clear when a colleague came to his office and asked him to fight.
“She wanted me to send in grades, and I did not have time because I was working on the seniors’ grades, [which] are the priority for the registrar,” said Mwantuali. “She said, ‘Stop whatever you’re doing and give me the grades right now.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ She said, ‘Let’s fight.’ That was the moment where I got my first shock.”
He said that moment was the start of over fifteen years of alleged racially biased treatment at the hands of his colleagues and Hamilton administrators, Mwantuali contends in a recently filed lawsuit. He is accusing Hamilton of systemic racism and is seeking punitive damages.
Mwantuali describes an environment in which professors made racial comments that he viewed as problematic. When he was describing the development of South Africa, a colleague allegedly asked him whether it had been accomplished by Black people or by white people. And in a discussion about a program meant to help students of color, he said that a colleague blamed the students for their own struggles.
As this occurred, Mwantuali says that he experienced treatment that differed from that of his white colleagues. He describes being given negative feedback by a dean in front of colleagues and being yelled at by a fellow professor while he was with his family.
“If I, a Black person, did what she did to me, to a young, white female colleague, I would not be here to tell you this story,” said Mwantuali.
Hamilton has a different interpretation of events.
"The College disputes the allegations in the Complaint and will address them through the judicial process," the school said in a statement.
Though little of the alleged treatment included explicit racism, Mwantuali feels certain that it is because of his background.
“They don’t say it that way, I just feel it that way,” he said. “I’m just different in this college. And they’ve been treating me as such.”
One of the starkest differences, Mwantuali alleges, came when he tried to advance to full professorship, a process that requires a nomination. Mwantuali says that when he asked a white colleague to nominate him, she demanded to see a signed book contract as proof of his scholarship. When he showed her two, she still would not support him. Later, she supported the candidacy of a white professor who hadn’t published any books at all.
Mwantuali eventually became a full professor after learning that he could self-nominate. But much of the joy was taken from his accomplishment.
“I had a feeling of failure,” he said. “I had a feeling like whatever I do is not good enough. It’s not high quality enough for them.”
After becoming a full professor, Mwantuali’s struggles continued. He was denied a position as department chairperson, a one-year job that all of his colleagues had held, including those with less experience. He finally became chairperson in 2018, but ultimately stepped down early in response to what he says was intolerable treatment by his colleagues, who he alleges chose teaching assistants without his input, among other slights.
Mwantuali made an internal complaint alleging discrimination and harassment based on sex and race, but says that his treatment again differed. The subject of Mwantuali's complaint was given documents that allowed her to prepare, sufficient time to answer investigative questions, and an extension. When a different colleague had filed a complaint against Mwantuali, he says that he received no such accommodations.
Hamilton argues that its process was legitimate.
“Hamilton College investigated Professor Mwantuali’s complaint fully and fairly in accordance with its Title IX policy,” the school said.
Mwantuali's complaint cites support from two Hamilton professors who say this he was mistreated on the basis of race. One called it "an academic lynching." However, when contacted by Diverse, one declined to comment, and the other professor did not respond.
Mwantuali said that his experiences have taken a toll. He was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and is in the process of a divorce that he believes is caused by the illness.
“Even talking about it right now, I feel sick,” he said. “[It was] very, very hostile. Very, very toxic.”
Although the judicial process has yet to play out, Mwantuali’s claims line up with what many minoritized scholars feel about their experiences in the academy.
Nearly half of Black faculty say that discrimination is a source of stress for them, according to a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2016-17. Only around 60% of Black faculty believe that faculty of color are treated fairly. And nearly three-quarters of Black faculty believe that they need to work harder than their peers to be seen as legitimate scholars.
Minoritized faculty often carry burdens that are hard for their colleagues to see, according to Dr. Meghan Pifer, an associate professor in the department of educational leadership, evaluation, and organizational development at the University of Louisville.
“I’m struck by how many people reflect back on their careers and talk about negative ways in which who they are interacted with the institutions in which they worked,” she said. “I think we have to take seriously the way people describe their experiences in the academy. And when they describe challenges, we need to listen.”
Mwantuali, who continues to work at Hamilton as a tenured professor, hopes that his lawsuit forces the school to take his experiences seriously.
“I hope that Hamilton College is going to wake up and see that they’re not treating minorities the way they deserve to be treated,” he said. “Hopefully, nobody has to go through this again.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.