Teachers College was forced to do some soul-searching this year as the discovery of a noose on a professor's door—and subsequent revelations about plagiarism on her part—brought to the fore questions about the school's handling of racial issues.
On Oct. 9, a noose, an infamous symbol of lynching, was placed on the office door of psychology and education professor Madonna Constantine's office door. Shortly thereafter, a swastika was found painted on the door of a TC professor known for her research on the Holocaust, kicking off a campuswide dialogue on the implications of hate crimes.
The day after the noose was found, a crowd met Constantine with cheers outside of Zankel Hall. "I'm upset that our community was exposed to such an overwhelmingly blatant act of racism," Constantine said at the time. "Hanging a noose on my door reeks of cowardice on many, many levels."
"I share your shock and outrage. This is an abhorrent act," TC President Susan Fuhrman said at the event. The group marched and chanted throughout Columbia's campus, and the TC Coalition for Social Justice was formed.
Representatives from the New York Police Department's Hate Crime Task Force said in an October press conference that Constantine was not considered a suspect in the noose case. Despite fingerprint testing and the reviewing of security videotapes, the police have yet to identify a suspect.
The firestorm surrounding the noose initially cooled, only to escalate anew in mid-February when TC officials issued an internal memo stating that Constantine had been sanctioned for plagiarism charges which had already been under investigation at the time of the noose incident. Several previous students, to whom TC granted legal indemnity, came forward with passages they said Constantine used with inappropriate attribution. While TC officials said they would not fire Constantine due to her tenured position, they did not otherwise specify the terms of her sanction.
Former TC professor Christine Yeh, who now teaches at the University of San Francisco, was one of three former colleagues and students identified by TC as having formally accused Constantine of plagiarism. Yeh said she gradually became concerned about Constantine's research over the course of a decade of working in the same department. Another complainant, Tracy Juliao, said she had noted specific publications by Constantine that reproduce verbatim portions of Juliao's dissertation.
Official discussion of the alleged misconduct began in December 2005 when Yeh, Juliao, and others brought complaints to the department level, according to former counseling and clinical psychology department chair Suniya Luthar. Luthar said she took these concerns to then-TC Dean Darlene Bailey in hopes of launching a formal investigation. In August 2006, Luthar turned over materials documenting the allegations to TC attorneys, she said. Luthar next heard about the investigation a year later, when Constantine allegedly presented her with a summons threatening legal action for defamation, slander, and libel. Constantine never followed up on the original summons with specifics, and withdrew the complaint following the October hate crime.
Constantine responded with a statement accusing the TC administration of being on a racist "witch hunt" against her. She and her lawyer, Paul Giacomo, said that Constantine had, in fact, been plagiarized first by the people who were accusing her. Constantine is appealing the investigation's findings on the grounds that her "due process" was violated and will present evidence to a faculty committee which will hear the appeal.
According to Constantine and Giacomo, the law firm hired by TC to investigate Constantine only spoke to her once, and never consulted the student whom they accused of stealing a manuscript. "The evidence that I have presented establishing my innocence has been ignored, even when independent third parties have corroborated it," Constantine said. "Evidence showing my accusers to have lied also has been ignored." Constantine said she was threatened by administrators and asked to sign a letter of resignation that admitted to plagiarism—a letter Constantine called "blackmail."
The allegations of racism drew strong rebuttals from a TC spokesperson, who called the notion that TC is racist "absolutely absurd and untrue" because the school has "zero tolerance for racism."
In late March, the New York Post reported that a state grand jury—a jury that determines whether evidence is sufficient for a trial and has the power to issue indictments—had subpoenaed the school's records concerning Constantine in an investigation of the noose. Marcia Horowitz, the spokesperson hired to speak on TC's behalf regarding the Constantine case, confirmed that TC received a subpoena and was complying with it.
The events that followed the hate crime thrust TC's and the University's handling of race issues into the media spotlight and student discussions. At speak-outs and town halls, TC faculty and administrators have said that the event galvanized the community to confront racial issues more openly. Students spoke out, saying they felt professors confronted such issues too obliquely in classrooms.
As Constantine's appeal proceeds, so do discussions about reforming TC's handling of community and faculty issues.