The University of Minnesota has agreed to pay $65,000 to a former employee who claimed she was fired for speaking “candidly and passionately” against the racial profiling of African-Americans on campus.
Alysia Lajune, 41, was hired in March 2012 as assistant director of orientation and the transfer experience, according to a federal lawsuit she filed last May.
Lajune, who is black, said she soon became concerned about a lack of racial diversity and re-established the Black Faculty and Staff Association, serving as its president.
In that role, she spoke out against the use of racial descriptors in university crime alerts, which often identified suspects as black males. Black students and staff complained that the alerts made them feel less safe and less welcome on campus.
In July 2013, Lajune accepted a different position at the U, assisting Katrice Albert, vice president of the Office for Equity and Diversity.
She said that in her first three months in that job, she received nothing but positive feedback from Albert. Her boss even congratulated her after she wrote a petition letter to President Eric Kaler and Pam Wheelock, vice president of university services.
But Albert’s demeanor changed after a January 2014 forum on racial profiling, which was organized by an associate dean and featured Kaler and Wheelock, among others.
From the audience, Lajune spoke for three and a half minutes, describing her experience of being followed by a police officer in Dinkytown and criticizing Wheelock for downplaying concerns about racial profiling on campus.
She said it was “a little insulting” for Wheelock to say the U has had no complaints of racial profiling when Lajune’s group had given her numerous examples.
“You don’t need an official report to know that it’s happening,” she said.
Lajune also complained that Wheelock had not included various African-American advocacy groups in discussions about the U’s protocols, calling it “a bit of a slap in the face (that) we’ve never had a seat at the table.”
After the forum, Lajune said, Albert sent text messages to a third party, saying Lajune had “totally gone rogue” and “verbally insulted and assaulted” Wheelock, embarrassing Albert and the equity and diversity office.
A week later, Albert told Lajune she would get a warning letter in her file, which would claim they discussed Lajune’s poor performance weeks prior. That, Lajune said, was a lie.
Lajune said she didn’t know where to turn for help because both employee assistance agencies reported to Albert. She said she had severe anxiety and a major depressive episode and tried to take her own life in March 2014.
She took two months off and was told when she returned to work that her contract would not be renewed as of September.
Further, Lajune said Albert disparaged her to people in other departments at the U, so she never was able to get an interview for other jobs.
Lajune left the U in September and went to work for Metropolitan State University.
Lajune initially filed the lawsuit against the university, Kaler and Albert, seeking compensation for free-speech violations, lost wages, medical expenses, humiliation, emotional distress and damage to reputation. She later amended the complaint to include only Kaler and Albert, but the U will pay the settlement.
Under the settlement agreement, reached March 10 after a 13-hour conference, Lajune will get $39,000 from the U. Her lawyer, Zorislav Leyderman, will get $26,000.
The university did not admit to any wrongdoing. Lajune agreed she never again would seek employment at the U.
Five months after Lajune left, the university changed its crime-alert procedure. Alerts now include racial descriptors only when police have additional details that might help identify a suspect.
In a letter announcing the change, Kaler said the previous practice may have “unintentionally reinforce(d) racist stereotypes of black men and other people of color as criminals and threats.”
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