A former Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) professor is suing the institution for what he calls a culture of favoritism and hostility. Frank Phillips taught public relations at the school from 1997-2016, when he retired to avoid being dismissed for performance that did “not meet college standards and is, in fact, unsatisfactory.”
According to Phillips, his firing was a direct result of retaliation that occurred after he filed complaints about unfair scheduling and inquired about illegal grade changes made for two students in the school’s communication and theatre department. He also alleges the department’s former chairwoman, Tammy O’Donnell, coerced students to write letters bashing his teaching abilities. O’Donnell, who is no longer employed by PGCC, did not respond to the AFRO’s request for comment.
“I noticed the hostility and scheduling inequities in fall 2012, but the retaliation occurred after filing a grievance in March 2015,” said Phillips, an Army veteran and former press secretary for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). “There were no negative employment actions prior to this time. Faculty evaluations were at least ‘meets expectations’ and student evaluations were well above average.”
Phillips claims O’Donnell approached at least two students during the Fall 2015 semester and urged them to file complaints attacking his teaching style and personal character. In return, Phillips alleges O’Donnell boosted grades from a C to a B for a female student, and a B to an A on two incidences for a male student. Phillips said he was not aware of the changes until another student inquired about rumors that classmates received higher grades without merit.
“Three students in my PRJ 2210 class approached me with concerns. They were very adamant about ensuring I knew they were not part of an attempt to write a letter of complaint about me. I was surprised, but I later assured the students that I was ok with it, but I would have preferred if students just shared their concerns with me,” Phillips said. “I told them I am here for students and that I don’t hold grudges. All three of those students have made statements confirming a conspiracy between Ms. O’Donnell and others to have me removed.”
A student present for Phillips’ public relations course said she believes O’Donnell and other members of the faculty were involved in a “conspiracy to get [Phillips] out.”
“They were trying to recruit people to say something negative about Mr. Phillips, but nobody had anything to say,” the student, who wished to remain anonymous, told the AFRO. “He maintained his professionalism the whole way through. Even with the nasty e-mails [the administration] was sending him.”
Documents reviewed by the AFRO show O’Donnell did, in fact, sign a grade change approval form during the Fall 2015 semester. The form cited “grade miscalculated” as the reason for the change. In most cases, the student’s instructor signs the grade change approval form, not the chair of the department, Phillips said.
The AFRO also reviewed numerous e-mails, text messages, grievance reports and other school documentation showing Carolyn F. Hoffman, the school’s dean of liberal arts; Charlene Dukes, president; Alonia Sharps, chief of staff; and Sandra Dunnington, vice president of academic affairs, were all made aware of the grade change, which allegedly occurred without Phillips’ knowledge.
Phillips suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and said hostile exchanges with O’Donnell, Dunnington, and Hoffman triggered “anxieties that take me back to places I care not to remember.” Phillips also alleges he was unable to complete doctoral studies due to an overwhelming course load deliberately created by O’Donnell.
Marcia Pearl, a former assistant professor of visual communications at PGCC, said she also experienced intimidation, harassment and racism at the hands of school officials during her 11-year tenure. Pearl claims a White administrator in the Art, Music and Philosophy Department regularly made racially insensitive jokes and referred to her as “Buckwheat” while calling Black students “niggers.” After the administrator and another White colleague continued to call Pearl “Buckwheat,” she filed a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and wrote a letter of complaint to Dukes. She said PGCC did little to address the complaint and she resigned from her position at the school in 2015.
According to PGCC’s most recent “Performance Accountability Report,” three-fourths of its students identified as Black and 8.6 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino. When asked if she thought school officials corroborated to oust Phillips, Pearl adamantly said, “yes.”
“It’s obvious to me that both Carolyn Hoffman, dean of Liberal Arts, and Tammy O’Donnell worked to undermine professor Phillips’ classroom authority. As a faculty member, I experienced unwarranted sanctions leveled against me by Dean Hoffman and others following the filing of my complaint of racial harassment and discrimination. As such, I am familiar with their unethical tactics.”
Phillips’ initially filed a lawsuit against Dukes and Board Chair Samuel Parker, Jr. on June 9 for employment discrimination. The lawsuit is still pending in Maryland District Court.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education’s website, PGCC’s graduation rates are sluggish at 7 percent and well below the national median. A report issued by the Department of Education and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found full-time community college students graduate at a rate of 39 percent. “The system totally failed. It failed for me, definitely,” said Phillips. “It’s failing for the students. Their objectives don’t seem to be in line with cultivating our future.”