A member of the board of directors of a Harvard-affiliated honor society has charged the group with racial discrimination in a complaint filed last month with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), agency officials said this week.
Walter Fox Tree, a Native American who is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, charged that the Graduate School of Education (GSE) Phi Delta Kappa chapter passed him over for the presidency in February because of his heritage.
In the complaint, Fox Tree is "accusing Frank Gifune, who is chairman of the Austin School in Reading, along with the Phi Delta Kappa graduate school of Harvard University" with discrimination in their decision to reelect current President Roseann Stephens, said MCAD official Francisco Villalobos. It is unusual for a president to serve two terms, several members said.
Gifune denied the charge, saying it was "a totally baseless claim." Fox Tree declined comment on the matter.
A 1974 GSE graduate, Fox Tree is claiming protection from MCAD under Massachusetts public accommodations law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, sex, age, race, ethnicity and other factors in such places as private clubs, restaurants and hotels. Although the commission will attempt to act asmediator between the club and Fox Tree, it couldeventually rule that Phi Delta Kappa must hold newelections or award the complainant money.
Phi Delta Kappa is an official studentorganization at the Ed School, said Assistant Deanfor Academic and Student Services Dorris Ford. Thesociety has around 500 members, 25 percent of whomare Ed School students, said Stephens.Approximately 1100 students are enrolled at theschool.
Most of the other members are former students,although the community is welcome to apply formembership, said Stephens.
The Harvard chapter was thrown out of theinternational Phi Delta Kappa in the 1970s when itadmitted women but was readmitted after theHarvard and Columbia chapters filed suit.
MCAD's Villalobos said an investigator isreviewing briefs submitted by Gifune and Stephens."The information that is provided to us isextensive," he said, adding that he expects theinitial review to conclude in the next two weeks.
Fox Tree, who has been on the board for 15years and is currently vice president formembership, alleges that normal nominatingprocedures were intentionally neglected to keephim from becoming president.
Muriel Knight, one of three members on thenominating committee, said that she believes"certain procedures weren't carried out thatshould have been carried out." She said that afterthe committee develops an election slate, normallyit goes before the full board for review beforebeing sent to members. This year, Knight said, theslate was not reviewed.
Knight, a Black woman who was once president ofHarvard's Phi Delta Kappa chapter, said Fox Treeshould have garnered the nomination because he wasnext in line. She said she had warned bothStephens and the members of the nominatingcommittee that "you might get reprecussions fromthis."
Stephens maintains that proper procedures werefollowed, no committee members objected to hernomination, and succession from vice president topresident is not automatic. Gifune said thecommittee even told Fox Tree, who served on thecommittee that nominated Gifune as presidentseveral years ago, that he would be considered forthe top post next year.
The discrimination complaint and the eventsleading up to it have torn apart what members sayis usually a peaceful and highly respectedvolunteer organization.
One member of the board of directors resignedpartly because of the incident, and Stephens saidothers had also considered leaving.
Phi Delta Kappa officials at the GSE said theywere surprised by the discrimination case becausethey had no problems dealing with Fox Tree in thepast. Some said he may have resorted to thediscrimination complaint simply because heexhausted other means of appeal.
Before going to MCAD, Fox Tree complainedwithin the organization, to the regional directorand the international itself. These appeals didnot involve charges of racial discrimination,Gifune said.
Stephens said the international organization'sexecutive director, Lowell Rose, is willing tocome to Cambridge to meet with Fox Tree. Rosecould not be reached for comment