Professor Wang Ping and Macalester Embroiled in Legal Battle

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Professor Wang Ping and Macalester Embroiled in Legal Battle

English professor Wang Ping in her office in Old Main. Photo by Kori Suzuki ’21.

English professor Wang Ping in her office in Old Main. Photo by Kori Suzuki ’21.

English professor Wang Ping in her office in Old Main. Photo by Kori Suzuki ’21.

English professor Wang Ping in her office in Old Main. Photo by Kori Suzuki ’21.

Margaret Moran and Abe Asher

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English professor Wang Ping is again embroiled in a legal battle with Macalester over the future of her career at the college.

This January, as she prepared to teach a new poetry course, Wang reached out to Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE), a Native student group on campus, inviting them to participate in a semester-long drum-making workshop led by a Native American elder.

But PIPE took offense — responding via email that they felt that the use of indigenious cultural practices in the course was “highly inappropriate” and calling language regarding Native traditions in the course syllabus “problematic and racist.”

While Wang acknowledged PIPE’s initial concerns as “legit” and invited PIPE representatives to discuss their concerns, tensions escalated quickly.

Wang and the student who wrote PIPE’s response exchanged a series of emails, copying Indigenous alumni, a number of faculty members and college administrators including English department chair Andrea Kaston-Tange and Provost Karine Moe.

Wang also shared parts of the email exchange with her class, to whom she repeatedly expressed her displeasure with the fact that the syllabus had been shared outside of the class, and, according to multiple students, struggled to reconcile herself to the fact that her actions were deemed offensive.

“She’s been so used to occupying the position of the oppressed other,” a student in the class said, “to be accused of racism — she just couldn’t wrap her brain around [it].”

Roughly two weeks after PIPE’s initial response to her invitation, she eliminated all of the Native content from her course — in effect throwing out much of her existing syllabus.

“I want to let you know that since I have pulled out all the Native American materials from the syllabus, there should be no reason to fear any more,” Wang wrote in an email to her class on Feb. 16. “Please feel free to share, copy and discuss with anyone you want.”

But by that point, the situation had moved from a conflict over course content to an investigation of Wang’s professional conduct more generally.

According to a document obtained by The Mac Weekly, shortly after the class began, students began reaching out to department and administration officials to express concerns about the classroom environment.

Over the next several weeks, the Provost’s office reached out to more students in Wang’s class to ask them questions about her handling of student privacy issues, relationships with students and classroom dynamics.

The office also pursued a different line of questioning — asking students if Wang made any inappropriate comments regarding her role on a faculty search committee convened to hire a new tenure-track creative writing professor.

By late March, Wang had landed in front of the Faculty Personnel Committee (FPC) — the body responsible for considering cases of faculty misconduct. In May, after concluding its deliberations, the FPC recommended that Wang and the college sever their relationship.

Wang is on sabbatical for the 2019-2020 school year, a leave planned well before the controversy surrounding her poetry course erupted. For now, she is still drawing a salary from Macalester — but it is unclear whether she will ever teach at the college again.

The History

An immigrant from China to the United States, Wang began teaching creative writing at Macalester in 1999. She was promoted to the rank of associate professor and granted tenure in 2005 and promoted again, to the rank of full professor, in 2012.

Along the way, Wang has published 14 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction to significant national acclaim — receiving fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bush Foundation and winning an Asian American Studies Book award in 2009.

She has also received a number of positive reviews of her teaching and mentorship from students, some of whom have posted about their experiences on a Change.org petition defending her. The petition currently has more than 450 signatures, while a GoFundMe page set up to support her has raised more than $2,500. 

But Wang’s career at Macalester has also been marked by repeated clashes with the college’s administration.

Twice, Wang has claimed that the college has promoted underqualified white, male professors ahead of her — first in 2003, when she sought an early promotion to the rank of associate professor, then again in 2009, when she sought promotion to the rank of full professor.

Two years later, after experiencing what she said was retaliation from the college in the form of research funding cuts, she filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

After completing its investigation in 2012, the EEOC dismissed that charge. Wang, in response, sued Macalester for lost earnings and emotional distress based on what she claimed were its discriminatory practices towards her on the basis of her sex, race and national origin.

That suit was resolved by mediation, and Wang resumed teaching at the college.

“They really didn’t want me to come back,” Wang said. “But I insisted: I’m coming back. I’m not leaving Macalester.”

The Allegations

After last spring, however, Wang may not have any choice in the matter.

Wang stands accused of violating student privacy at several points during and immediately following her poetry class—when she forwarded emails from PIPE to her class, as well as when a number of her course evaluations were uploaded to a public Change.org petition with students’ names attached.

Wang contends that, because PIPE’s representative copied several non-Macalester email addresses on their emails to her, the emails were, in effect, public. She has apologized for the uploading of the course evaluations, which have since been re-uploaded with all names removed and with the consent of the students.

There are myriad allegations from the college, a number of which are detailed in the FPC memo dated May 15.

Several relate to the search for the new tenure-track creative writing professor.

A student reported to Moe in early February that Wang said she would refuse to consider a Native American candidate for the open position in the aftermath of the controversy over Native course content.

Wang emphatically denied the charge to Moe, and told The Mac Weekly that she ultimately supported the two Native American finalists for the position, citing the lack of Native scholars in the English department and the general lack of Native faculty.

Another student in the class also denied this charge against Wang to The Mac Weekly.

“We all agreed, the four finalists are equally good,” Wang said. “So let’s talk about what is needed. And I argued we need a Native American poet.”

But on the evening of February 15, the rest of the search committee decided to hire one of the other, non-Native finalists. Wang gave her consent, and an offer letter was sent to the preferred candidate.

The next morning, however, Wang sent an email recanting her consent and again advocating for one of the Native candidates—stating that she was not trying to stop the hiring process initiated the night before, but instead wanted to create a record of her support for a Native candidate to defend herself against the allegations of bias.

This email led the FPC, in its memo, to accuse Wang of discrimination on the basis of whiteness.

Multiple students confirmed to The Mac Weekly that Wang discussed the search process in her poetry class but were divided on what she said.

Wang does not deny that she used ethnicity as a significant factor in evaluating the finalists, but instead accused the English department and college at large of hypocrisy regarding the use of race and ethnicity in its hiring processes.

“The [English] department was gloating: the four finalists were all people of color,” Wang said. “They were so proud of our result. So, what are we supposed to say? The framework is already race.”

Perhaps the most wide-ranging allegation against Wang is that she fostered a hostile classroom environment in her poetry course and favored certain students over others, often depending on their loyalty to her in her conflict with the college’s administration.

Much of this charge seems to tie to the very public way in which Wang discussed her conflict with PIPE in her class and shared her correspondence with the PIPE representative.

In a letter dated Feb. 15, Moe wrote to Wang that her poetry students expressed a reluctance to ask her questions or send her emails, fearing that she might either forward their emails to other students or single them out in the classroom.

The FPC went even further in its memo, writing that Wang’s relationships with certain students were “tantamount to emotional manipulation.” One student in the poetry class said that Wang “blurs the lines between personal and professional.”

But poetry can be a deeply personal artform, and a number of Wang’s students appreciated her teaching methods.

“I have a lot of sympathy for Ping as a person,” one student said. “She creates an environment in her classes that I haven’t been able to find elsewhere—of being enormously supportive of her students… There was a tremendous amount of investment in my work.”

“It was very different, [and] I actually really appreciated that difference,” a student in one of her spring Introduction to Creative Writing classes said. “It was a special experience.”

The Road Ahead

On May 14, when Wang was traveling along the Nile River for her Kinship of Rivers project, Macalester’s attorney Kathy Noecker sent her a letter detailing the college’s potential next steps—including docking Wang’s pay, suspending her without pay, revoking her tenure and dismissing her.

Those next steps were echoed in the FPC memo dated the following day. The memo recommended that Wang and the college negotiate their separation, and that, should no separation be negotiated, that Wang be removed from all teaching, service and mentoring roles.

On June 6, Noecker sent a letter to Wang’s attorney Peter Nickitas, notifying him that, in light of the ongoing situation, the college would not be sending Wang her annual appointment letter with salary information for the coming academic year.

Upon her return to Minnesota in June, Wang filed the discrimination charge with the EEOC.

The next month, at Wang’s behest, the Minnesota chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) sent a letter to Macalester asking that the college specify its charges against Wang and provide her with a forum to formally defend herself to a committee of her peers.

Nickitas, the Minneapolis-based attorney who represents Wang, is also representing former creative writing professor Kristin Naca in her wrongful termination suit against the college.

Naca, who was fired by Macalester in 2015 for engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a student, alleges that she, like Wang, was discriminated against on the basis of her race, gender and ethnicity.

Naca’s suit was dismissed last fall in a U.S. District Court summary judgement, which she has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit based in St. Louis.

Wang and Naca were colleagues in the English department before Naca’s termination. In a July 25 post on Facebook that began “Why Am I filing EEOC again,” Wang wrote, “because I refuse to be destroyed like Naca.”

Alongside Naca, Wang has drawn comparison between herself and another former colleague: international studies professor Soek-Fang Sim, who began teaching at Macalester in 2003 and departed in 2006, when the college declined to renew her contract. She died of cancer a year later.

Five years ago, Wang authored a poem titled “Who Killed Soek-Fang Sim” that connects Sim’s illness to her alleged mistreatment in academia.

On Aug. 3, Wang tweeted to her nearly 50,000 Twitter followers, “Now I understand why Soek-Fang died. What choice did she have? What choice do I have? The noose is so tight. I can’t breathe.”

Wang’s claims of discrimination loom over her case. She has alleged that her poetry class, its Moodle page and her social media accounts were surveilled by the college, and that students were “coerced” into making allegations against her to administrators.

“If it was a white, male professor, they would have been given honors,” Wang said of her creative output. “But as an immigrant, woman professor, I have to invoke EEOC all the time.”

Wang said that her treatment has been especially “discouraging” for her students of color.

Among several of her students, there is also a feeling that this situation need not have developed to the point that it has.

“It feels like she keeps shooting herself in the foot,” one student in the poetry class said of Wang. “Any opportunity she has to deescalate, she continues to escalate. It’s painful to watch.”

Wang’s current status is somewhat unclear.

“She is a tenured professor in the English department,” Assistant Vice President for Marketing and Communications Julie Hurbanis said. “She’s on paid sabbatical for this year, which has been long-planned.”

But though Wang is still being paid by the college, she has not received an appointment letter—while, at the same time, no formal disciplinary process has been triggered to permanently end her employment.

In an email to The Mac Weekly, Hurbanis wrote that while Macalester typically issues letters to faculty describing their continued tenure appointment for the coming year, “tenured faculty are employed continuously and their employment year-to-year is not dependent on any ‘contract renewal.’”

“Because Professor Wang requested mediation,” Hurbanis later wrote, “the College agreed to defer any action, including finalizing information that would be included in an annual salary letter.”

While both sides have expressed interest in resolving their conflict through mediation, they have not agreed to the terms under which any negotiation would take place. Wang has demanded that the college drop the charges against her, which the college has thus far been unwilling to do.

Wang said that, initially, her plan was to take her sabbatical leave, teach for two more years at Macalester, and then retire. But now, should the college meet her prerequisites for entering mediation, she would be more than happy to walk away.

“Justice and a clean name is all I want,” she said. “Then I will take off. I have my own things to do.”

If the two sides cannot come to an agreement and the college decides to terminate Wang’s employment, it will be required to follow its guidelines for dismissing tenured faculty developed in accordance with AAUP regulations.

According to the faculty handbook, tenured faculty members may appeal “the determination of a grievance resulting in termination or a severe sanction.” According to Hurbanis, what constitutes a severe sanction is up to the discretion of the Provost.

One student in the poetry course described the situation as “tragic.”

“I think [Wang] has a lot to offer as an incredibly successful poet and a really committed teacher, and so it feels very sad to lose that,” the student said. “But [there] was some erratic behavior that it seems like it would be irresponsible not to take seriously.”

Wang said that she would need a “miracle” to ever teach at Macalester again. But she remains hopeful that she can reach a positive resolution with the college.

“I love Macalester,” she said. “I love the students. Let’s have peace.”

PIPE, Moe and President Brian Rosenberg declined to comment.

The Mac Weekly will have more reporting as this story develops.