Tuesday, July 14, 2020

A look into what led a tenured math professor to be fired by Michigan State

Selman Akbulut alleged years of discrimination, he was found in violation of university teaching policies

June 3, 2020
<p>Former professor Selman Akbulut pictured at a Board of Trustees meeting in October 2018. </p>

Former professor Selman Akbulut pictured at a Board of Trustees meeting in October 2018.

Photo by Mila Murray | The State News

Selman Akbulut first stepped foot onto Michigan State University’s campus as a student in 1967. There, he was taught English. In 1981, he joined the faculty.

Throughout the 2014-15 academic year — then as a tenured professor in MSU's mathematics department — Akbulut expected to teach an upper division mathematics class that was eventually canceled due to lack of enrollment, despite the interest of seven students — two more than were necessary to run the class. 

He was asked to teach an undergraduate class instead. He refused.

On Feb. 14, the Board of Trustees voted 7-0 to dismiss Akbulut. Since then, Akbulut has challenged the dismissal, and he's continued researching and giving lectures at conferences.

"This wasn’t a decision the university made lightly," MSU Deputy Spokesperson Dan Olsen said in a statement via email. "The president’s recommendation and the board’s action speak for themselves."

Despite the way he left the university, MSU is still a big part of his life, he said.

"I still consider myself a Spartan," he said.

Akbulut fought the dismissal and said he experienced discrimination as a Turkish and Muslim professor.

He created a website to publish and annotate different documents related to his dismissal and the class that he was supposed to teach. He posted tweets using the hashtag "#ReclaimMSU" and jabbed at the university's administration. ReclaimMSU is an organization made up of members of the MSU community who demand transparency and accountability from the university.

Remaining an active Twitter user, Akbulut has his location set as "MI — Proud to be fired by MSU." But that's not aimed at the university as a whole, he said.

"I am proud of being a Spartan, and I'm proud to be fired by MSU — and that MSU is the administration," he said.

As a repercussion for not teaching the undergraduate class, 10% of his salary was meant to be withheld. What ultimately led to his dismissal proceedings was him fighting back, sending emails to other faculty members he thought might have been experiencing similar situations of discrimination, as well as faculty members who were involved with the administrative review panel regarding MSU's Department of Mathematics Chair Keith Promislow, according to documents obtained by The State News through a public records request.

He sent multiple emails concerning Promislow's position as chair, which he still holds. Within the emails, Akbulut accused Promislow of being underqualified and a poor fit for the position. Akbulut also accused Promislow of being discriminatory against him due to his heritage and religion.

People involved with the university were asked not to speak to the media on the topic, but Promislow spoke about how MSU has made changes regarding tenured faculty and abuse.

"I'm a big believer in the institution of tenure — I think it's a very valuable institution for faculties, for universities," Promislow said in an interview with The State News. "But it's certainly not something that should be allowed to be a shield for people who are engaging in abuse. And I think, in fact, if you allow it to become a shield, that's the best way to destroy the institution of tenure."

After being asked to stop sending the emails or he would risk facing repercussions, he continued to send them.

In a document obtained through a public records request, it is written that Akbulut received an official letter of reprimand on Jan. 22, 2018, for the emails that he was sending to his colleagues.

Akbulut said he wanted the letter expunged from his record and for a letter of correction to be written. It wasn't.

"People think because they are part of the administration and in power that can get away with this, but as you see, I'm not going away with this," Akbulut said in a recent interview with The State News. "Nobody can smear my reputation like this."

As the emails continued, Akbulut faced further repercussions — which ultimately led to Interim Dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Cheryl Sisk, to form an ad hoc committee composed of professors from all departments in the college besides the Department of Mathematics. The committee unanimously voted on March 21, 2018, that further discipline was warranted: A semester of unpaid suspension with no raise.

The University Committee on Faculty Affairs agreed with the committee's decision after Akbulut requested a consultation, according to the documents obtained by The State News. Promislow warned Akbulut that if the "'targeting' behavior" continued, he would be at risk of being dismissed for cause.

"Nonetheless, Dr. Akbulut sent additional and escalating emails to and about the disciplinary review panel, administrative review panel, and Department Chair," according to the documents.

When it became clear that Akbulut would not go down without a fight, dismissal for cause proceedings began after Promislow asked the interim dean to initiate the process. Dean of the College of Natural Science Phillip Duxbury ultimately initiated the proceedings.

Proceedings officially began on Nov. 14, 2018. In August 2019, the hearings lasted multiple days.

"The Hearing Committee held that (Duxbury) proved by clear and convincing evidence 'that Dr. Akbulut has systematically violated the University's policies, particularly relating to collegiality, and that there is sufficient cause to revoke his tenure and terminate his employment,'" a publicly requested document said.

Akbulut's lawyer, Amy Doukoure, was made aware of the case by one of Akbulut's former students, she said. Akbulut was provided pro bono legal council through the Michigan chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations.

Doukoure said that as a Turkish and Muslim professor, Akbulut faced discriminatory behaviors from the higher ups in the department.

"MSU clearly has picked favorites," Doukoure said. "They've determined who they are willing to stand beside and who they are not willing to stand beside."

She also noted that other students had spoken against Promislow, and he was accused of engaging in discriminatory behaviors to Turkish, Middle Eastern and Muslim students.

"It was sort of a spectacle, like how he got terminated," Doukoure said. "He had a long history. He had a really good rapport with students."

She referenced his high teaching scores from former students on different professor-rating websites, as well as positive reviews conducted internally.

"He had really, really good reviews from students," she said. "He was really dedicated to his students."

Doukoure said Akbulut felt as though he and his students were being mistreated after the class cancellation happened.

"He lost his life's work," Doukoure said. "He dedicated his entire career — he was a student at MSU, he taught there — he literally dedicated his entire career to a university that just cast him aside," Doukoure said.

Support for Akbulut extended beyond the university.

The Turkish Mathematical Society, in a 2019 letter to Promislow, spoke on behalf of Akbulut and called for recognition to be granted to the contributions he has made to mathematics and to MSU. Akbulut also received a letter of support from criminal justice lawyer Craig Shannon.

Akbulut said anytime he criticizes the university, he is referring specifically to the administration. Akbulut said the biggest loss was not his institution, it was his students.

"Research is my life," he said. "The only thing that's going to hurt me in all ways — physically and emotionally — when I am at a university, I have the chance to meet young minds. So, I miss all the people — researchers — and I look at the list of my grad students and they become mathematicians and they generate mathematics," he said. "I will be missing that."

Editor's note: This article was updated at 12:26 p.m. to rearrange Department of Mathematics Chair Keith Promislow's comments for clarity, nothing was added or deleted


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