Doctoral Candidate Sues the University Over Discrimination

Sameena Azhar was fired from her University job after she complained about racist behavior in the workplace.

By Lauren Pankin

A doctoral candidate has filed a $1 million discrimination lawsuit against the University of Chicago Board of Trustees, claiming that she was fired from her University position in retaliation for race-related complaints she made.  

Sameena Azhar’s lawsuit was filed on November 7 in the U.S. District Court in Chicago. The suit concerns incidents that occurred in 2014 and 2015.   

Azhar, a Muslim and Indian American, was suspended and ultimately fired from her job at the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination (CCHE) in November 2015 after she complained that white students had received business cards while she had not, according to the lawsuit. 

Azhar alleges that in response to her complaint, Dr. John Schneider, the Director of CCHE, suspended her for four months. Within a few weeks of the initial suspension, Azhar was informed that as a student-employee, she was ineligible for a suspension and would consequently be terminated, said Azhar’s lawyer, Zubair Khan. 

“Business cards were the last straw for her,” Khan said. “When she was denied a card and complained, that’s what preceded the termination.” 

Before the business card incident, the CCHE segregated staff based on race and paid white employees more than their non-white counterparts, Azhar’s lawsuit alleges. The lawsuit also claims that the CCHE offered white employees more flexibility in their schedules and work responsibilities.  

Azhar’s termination led to several academic consequences. 

“After she was terminated, it almost felt like a bunch of dominoes falling,” Khan said. 

Two members of her dissertation committee resigned their positions on the committee. When Azhar attempted to find replacement members, unnamed University faculty told her she should not have complained about discriminatory actions if she wanted to complete her dissertation, the case alleges. 

After Azhar’s termination, Schneider allegedly forced her to discontinue work on a number of publications, including one about sexual networks in India. The lawsuit also said that Dr. Leyla Ismayilova of the School of Social Service Administration refused to continue to work with Azhar on a publication regarding gender violence in refugee camps in Uganda following the termination. 

“Azhar was told, ‘I don’t want to work with you because of how unprofessional you are with other staff members,’” Khan said.  

The lawsuit also claims that retaliatory defamatory statements about Azhar were made to other staff members at CCHE and academic collaborators at UCLA, the University of Texas, and Argonne Laboratories, according to the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit alleges that Azhar has not received compensation for her contributions to a reproductive health study, and received compensation a year late for grading papers that graduate students completed for Dr. Alida Bouris, an associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration, in winter quarter 2014. 

After unsuccessfully attempting to clarify and resolve the dispute surrounding her termination, Azhar filed a formal grievance with the human resources manager in the Biological Sciences Division. This process did not allow Azhar to bring legal counsel to the hearing, Khan said.  

Azhar then filed a formal grievance with the provost’s office. The lawsuit alleges that this investigation did not involve any testimony from CCHE employees. Azhar said she was again prevented from bringing legal counsel to the investigation.  

“The University is taking a hard line, saying, ‘We don’t have to talk to the other employees, we don’t have to allow an attorney, we don’t think anything has happened here, we’re not going to help someone with potential race-related issues,’” Khan said.  

University representatives declined to comment, saying they do not comment on pending litigation. The University has one month to confirm or deny the allegations and to file for further motions, Khan said. 

“My client is not somebody looking for a buck,” Khan said. “If the U of C were to come by and acknowledge what has happened here, that would be a big part of resolving this.”