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MSU Mankato settles race and national origin discrimination suit with six-figure payout

The complainant's lawyers said the professor's Cantonese accent was used in part to pass him over him for a tenure-track position in violation of civil rights laws.

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MANKATO, Minn. — An Asian-born astronomy professor has reached a six-figure settlement in a lawsuit with Minnesota State University Mankato, according to a statement from the professor's attorneys.

In an October 2021 lawsuit, Dr. Ka-Wah Wong said that the university was in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, one of the strongest civil rights laws in the nation. Wong said he was passed over for a tenure-track position due to his race and national origin.

Because the case was settled, the exact terms — including the specific dollar amount paid out to Wong — are not made public. Wong has since left Mankato, and now resides on the East Coast, where he works as an assistant professor of physics at the State University of New York.

Born in Asia and raised in Hong Kong, Wong first started teaching in MSUM’s physics and astronomy department in 2014. He speaks English, but acknowledges that he does so with a Cantonese accent.

In a news release, Wong’s attorneys said MSUM records demonstrate that Wong had maintained an “excellent teaching record” during his time at the university and that he had become well-regarded for his research efforts, which included more than 10 projects funded by NASA.

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In early 2018, Wong had become one of three finalists for a tenure-track position of assistant professor of astronomy at MSUM. With both other candidates originating from the United States, Wong claimed in his lawsuit that he was ultimately turned down from the position despite his “superior qualifications and prior excellent teaching experience” at MSUM.

As part of the hiring process, Wong’s attorneys said each of the three finalists were required to be guest lecturers in an astronomy class and a research seminar. After Wong obtained his ratings through an open records request, he found that students rated him generally high, but faculty ratings of Wong were “much lower,” his attorneys said, specifically in a category that rated clarity of speech, according to the release.

Acknowledging that he speaks with an accent, Wong argued that he had successfully taught at MSUM for several years without issue. His attorneys said that faculty ratings included negative comments about Wong’s accent, with one faculty member writing that they could only understand “15% of anything [Dr. Wong] said.”

Wong’s attorneys said that in contrast to comments from faculty, student evaluators wrote that he had “explain[ed] the material very well,” “presented everything excellently,” provided “very clear explanations” and made an “overall amazing presentation.” In his lawsuit, Wong claimed that the department faculty used their low clarity of speech ratings to justify selecting the other candidates ahead of him.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dictates that an employer may not base an employment decision on an employee's foreign accent, “unless the accent seriously interferes with the employee's job performance.” Wong’s lawyers said that his excellent teaching record and the student evaluation scores during the hiring process indicate that his accent did not “materially interfere” with his ability to communicate in English.

Further, Wong’s attorneys said that during sworn testimony, many of the faculty who provided ratings of Wong’s clarity of speech admitted that his accent did not materially interfere with his teaching, with one adding that he had a “strong command” of the English language, according to the release.

“I have met many wonderful people since I moved to the United States years ago, including in Mankato, and I firmly believe that all people deserve to be treated equally and with respect,” Wong said in the statement. “I was shocked that such unfair treatment would happen at Mankato State, which is supposed to promote equity and inclusiveness.”

Through his lawyer’s statement, Wong said he hopes that his case will have a positive impact in promoting the reduction of bias against members of minority groups both within and outside academia.

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In an email, MSUM Media Relations Director Dan Benson provided a statement on behalf of the university denying any wrongdoing in the matter.

"Minnesota State University, Mankato is fully committed to equal opportunity and non-discrimination in employment and education, and we are proud of our track record in this area. We believe the diversity of our faculty, staff, and students is a tremendous asset and is an important contributor to the student experience," the university's statement reads. "We deny any wrong-doing, however, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further on the personnel matter involving Dr. Wong."

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A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021 and now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on local news in Sioux Falls. He also writes regional news spanning across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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