Sun-Times: Ex-Columbia prof sues over firing

CAIR-Chicago is currently representing Suriya Smiley in her lawsuit against Columbia College.

A former science professor has sued Columbia College Chicago, charging that the school dismissed her after 32 years because she is Jewish and because she spoke out against the firing of another faculty member.

Zafra Lerman said Columbia violated its own policies and her rights as a tenured professor by firing her last year. Her federal suit, filed against four top administrators, said they began a retaliatory campaign against her after she criticized the firing of Suriya Smiley, a professor of Palestinian descent who was accused of making an anti-Semitic remark.

Lerman, a native of Israel, has won international acclaim for promoting new ways to teach science. She also has used professional conferences to promote Middle East peace.

Before her firing, Lerman fought with the school in 2009 when Columbia assumed control of money she had raised for her favorite project, the Malta Conference. The biennial meeting was held in Jordan in 2009 and connected Mideast scientists with Nobel laureates.

Her suit names Columbia board Chairman Allen Turner, President Warrick Carter, Senior Vice President Steven Kapelke and general counsel Annice Kelly. Reached Sunday, Turner declined to comment.

Lerman’s attorney, Laurel Bellows, said the case raises issues of civil rights and academic freedom.

The complaint says Columbia asserted it fired Lerman for “misappropriating government grant funds” but never explained the charges or allowed a full appeal before a faculty review committee.

“Columbia is a very tight-run college,” Bellows said. “People are in fear of speaking out.”

The suit alleges that the school “has a history of treating Jewish and female faculty less favorably than similarly situated male, non-Jewish faculty in matters involving sanctions and dismissal.”

It contrasts her treatment with how Columbia allegedly responded to Lerman’s own complaints about a staff member who reported to her. Lerman said she gave the school evidence the staffer wasn’t working on grant projects to which he was assigned but that the employee was never disciplined.

Her suit said Carter has defamed her for repeatedly stating in public that she misused grant money.

In a complaint Lerman filed last year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she said her high standing in academia had netted more than $6 million in grants to Columbia. Records show that in the 2007-08 academic year, Lerman was Columbia’s highest-paid faculty member, at $245,445.