LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A New Mexico State University faculty member whose contract was not renewed says she was told she was “too educated to be considered Black.”
Yelena Bird, a native of England who is Black, and her husband, John Moraros, a native of Greece who also is of Hispanic descent, have been at NMSU since 2004 and had been on track to receive tenure at the school’s College of Health and Social Services.
Students protested Tuesday against NMSU’s decision not to renew the couple’s teaching contracts and gathered more than 500 signatures to support them.
The couple said their terminations followed months of racial and sexual harassment from college administrators.
“They were telling me, ‘Well, you’re too educated to be considered Black,’” and that she didn’t “talk like a Black person,” Bird told the Las Cruces Sun-News.
She said administrators told her they do not have to explain why the contract was not renewed. Moraros said he was told the contracts weren’t renewed because the couple was not a good fit with the college.
Moraros said they received letters Feb. 13 that their contracts would not be renewed, days after being summoned individually for meetings with the dean, department head and an auditor, the Albuquerque Journal reported Wednesday in a copyright story.
He said he had submitted a reimbursement request for about $800 for a return trip to Washington state, where the couple went to finish their doctorate degrees. He said he didn’t realize his wife also submitted a reimbursement form. Only one was paid.
Moraros said he told the auditor it was an oversight since neither he nor Bird realized the other asked for reimbursement. He said he believes the reimbursement issue was a pretext.
Shortly before the contract decision, he said, he confronted an official about pornographic images the official sent him by e-mail and asked him to stop. Moraros said the official told him he would make Moraros disappear from NMSU.
Moraros said he also spoke out about another official referring to Blacks as Negroes and saying that few minorities were educated enough for faculty positions.
“It was extremely offensive,” he said. “It was demeaning.”
Provost Waded Cruzado-Salas said the department is reviewing the allegations. “Any allegations of unfairness or mistreatment will always be taken seriously and reviewed thoroughly,” she said in a statement issued Tuesday.
James Robinson, who stepped down temporarily as head of the department, referred questions to university attorney Bruce Kite. Kite had no comment.
The health sciences department’s longest-serving faculty member, Robert Buckingham, has asked Martin to call for a confidence or no confidence vote in the department head.
“We live in an intimidation work environment,” he told the Journal. “There’s administrative harassment. I’ve seen examples … of racial discrimination … and evidence also of sexual harassment.”
University President Mike Martin told the Sun-News it’s impossible for students to know all the details because of the confidentiality of personnel issues.
“These are matters of faculty personnel, which we don’t discuss at this stage in the process,” Martin said. “We don’t ever have these conversations with students.”
Martin said he was staying away from the issue for now in case he’s asked to weigh in later. He also said the school’s formal grievance procedures would ensure fairness.
“It’s easy to make big and bold accusations about something. It’s a lot harder to be reasonable and balanced,” he said.
The president also the small number of students involved in Tuesday’s protest seemed “more like a sewing circle,” and that petitions do little to affect policy.
“I could get 8,000 names on a petition in the next weekend to turn Zuhl Library into a sports bar,” he said.
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