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  • Charlie Hatcher

Pomona Professor Investigated for Discrimination, Takes College to Court

Professor Aaron Kunin in his office.

In December, Pomona College English professor Aaron Kunin began publishing excerpts from the manuscript of his upcoming book Weird at My School on Substack. The posts are about Pomona's investigation into two of his colleagues’ allegations against him. 

According to Kunin’s account, the professors claimed he was guilty of “race-based and sex/gender-based discrimination, harassment, and retaliation” after he advocated for standard procedure at a meeting in 2019. At that time, he was English department chair. Professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins started to take a vote for a large budget allocation, despite it being the department chair's role. In response, Professor Kunin claims he said “[Kyla], please,” and called the vote himself. 

The next day, Professor Valorie Thomas, who had been present at the meeting, wrote in an email to the department:

“I want to add that I wish I’d spoken up in the actual meeting about this: how we address colleagues in meetings is a serious issue especially now and to me it was inappropriate of the chair to yell at [Professor Tompkins] the same downdressing tone way some people reprimand a misbehaving child or subordinate. I think an apology is in order (I apologize to [Professor Tompkins] for not speaking up about it at the time even if I was shocked) but I hope this makes the situation visible to all of us and promotes dealing with it.”

In response, another professor, Kevin Dettmar, wrote to Kunin privately, asking “I read [Professor Thomas’] email yesterday with real puzzlement: what could she even be referring to? Oh, it was just you trying to run the meeting.”

Tompkins endorsed Thomas’ characterization of events. She replied all to write “Thanks [Valorie]: love you,” and forwarded Thomas’ email to the dean and the head of HR with the note, “Following the department meeting, [Valorie] sent this.”

The next day, Kunin wrote to the department:

“Once again different members of the English department have different accounts of matters of fact.

“I think [Thomas] is remembering the moment from our last meeting when [Tompkins] started taking a vote, which is part of the job of chairing a meeting. The formula in Robert’s Rules for a moment like that would be something like, ‘Professor [Tompkins] is out of order.” That sounds a bit harsh to me, and we use first names in this department, so instead my words were: “[Kyla], please.’ Everyone was there and may refer to their own memories of the meeting.

“If it is inappropriate for us to reprimand our colleagues, then my colleagues have sent me some inappropriate emails during my time as chair. However, I am not looking for anyone to apologize to me. As I have said before, I do not think that we will communicate better by policing our colleagues’ communications. Instead I would suggest that we have different styles of communication, and we should aim to tolerate the differences in style.

“If anyone has other thoughts on this issue, or other issues, let’s discuss them with [a professional mediator].”

The next month, Professor Thomas wrote to the Pomona President Gabi Starr, the dean, the associate dean serving as diversity officer, the mediator, and Professor Tompkins:

“The situation is unprofessional, traumatizing and threatens my health. It feels unsafe. It was traumatizing to witness Aaron’s degrading outburst at [Professor Tompkins] in that recent department meeting, and to have the rest act as if nothing happened -- the collective gaslighting of the African American/Afro-indigenous woman and the Moroccan woman by the white people is standard procedure in this department, but it’s still insidious and violent. In the same meeting where Aaron yelled at [Professor Tompkins] he badgered me about department money. He is obsessed with the thought that I’m stealing his dept money.

. . .  

“How long is he going to be allowed to be a loose cannon aimed at me? I strongly feel that the nonstop stress I have had all summer due to Aaron and the complicity of the English Department in allowing him to personally attack me all last year contributed to the car collision I was involved in on Sept 16, 2019.”

Professor Thomas and Tompkins brought a discrimination case against Kunin. Kunin summarized the proceedings in an introductory post:

“After a long investigation, the college determined that there was no discrimination or harassment, but found three instances of what it called retaliation against one of the complainants, and sanctioned me accordingly. The sanctions were mild, but I thought they were insulting; I petitioned for a writ of mandate in the California Superior Court. On September 6, 2022, after another long legal process, the court granted my petition. The court found that the college did not have evidence of retaliation, even under a weak ‘substantial evidence’ standard of review, and ordered the college to set aside the findings and sanctions in my case.”

“I want to give an accurate depiction of the working environment at my school, and to find the humor in it. People don’t seem to know what it’s like to work in a place like this. Strange to say, even people who work in places like this don’t know.

“What does ‘places like this’ mean? For a start, imagine a workplace where some of the workers are afraid that their colleagues might be white supremacists, and some of the workers are afraid that their colleagues might be on the verge of calling them white supremacists. (There is usually some overlap between the two groups, and, in most workplaces of this sort, no white supremacists at all.)”

As of February 5, Kunin has published ten selections from Weird at My School. When the Independent contacted him, he declined our request for comment. He wrote, “It's in my interest to have people read my story in my newsletter, in my words.” Professor Tompkins also declined to comment.


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