By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Last October 9, a Tuesday, someone tied a noose to the third-floor office door of Columbia Teachers College professor Madonna Constantine, a black woman whose work focused on racial issues in teaching.
During the outcry that followed, politicians condemned the apparent act of racial intimidation, Teachers College president Susan Fuhrman denounced the (still unknown) perpetrator, students held a raucous demonstration outside the stately brick institution, and—weirdly—copycat nooses started showing up all over the country.
The story made international news and landed an appearance on Good Morning America for an academic working in a narrow, largely unknown field. Police, however, couldn't seem to locate the culprit.
Then, in February, another revelation: In a terse statement from Fuhrman, it was announced that two former students and a former professor had accused Constantine of repeated acts of plagiarism. It turned out that the college had been secretly investigating Constantine for 18 months—long before the noose showed up on her door—and had been using an outside law firm to do the job.
Constantine angrily denied the accusations, appealed the plagiarism charges, and filed a grievance against the college.
Last week, after the school term had ended and the controversy died down, the college suddenly announced in a letter to faculty that Constantine had been fired, pending a hearing before a faculty committee. Also, a Manhattan grand jury apparently continues to examine the noose incident for possible criminal charges. Investigators reportedly subpoenaed Constantine's financial records. (Her lawyer says that she has not been called to testify.) Constantine, meanwhile, is mulling legal action, and few doubt that the matter will result in one or more lawsuits. The new fall term promises to be a lively one for Fuhrman and the college.
Fuhrman has tried mightily to keep the professors at the college from talking to the press. But speaking with both faculty and former students over several months, the Voice has learned that as many as 10 people complained about Constantine over several years, and these sources say the college did little to intervene. The central allegations against Constantine first surfaced in January 2006, more than two years ago.
The Voice has also learned that Constantine attempted to silence her accusers in the spring of 2007 by sending them letters threatening to sue unless they dropped their claims. She used college stationery and the college mailing account.
The letter to accuser Karen Cort, a former student, reads in part: "I will take whatever steps I deem appropriate to protect my professional and personal reputation from further harm."
Those letters, one college source says, may have been the thing that tipped the scales against Constantine and led to her firing.
What emerges after talking at length with people at Teachers College, including people close to the investigation, is a story that goes back nearly a decade, laying bare a seedy side of academic life that normally remains unseen, especially in places like the distinguished graduate school in education affiliated with Columbia University.
"The story is not so much about this one professor, but what happens in academia, how these institutions operate," an insider says. "The angle isn't just that she abused her power—there's a lack of a process for protecting students whose work is being used by professors."
When she chose Madonna Constantine as her doctoral adviser in 2002, graduate student Karen Cort thought she was choosing the best professor in the counseling-psychology department at the best teaching college in the country.
As one of the few black women professors in the field, Constantine was prominent in the department, and well known around the country in counseling circles. Cort felt that working with her was inspirational.
"I thought so highly of her," says Cort, who came to Teachers College after five grueling years as a school counselor.
As the term ended, however, one of Cort's other professors told Constantine that Cort had done well on a paper about school supervision, a subject Constantine herself had written about. Later, Cort says, Constantine pulled her aside and accused her of plagiarism.
"Committing plagiarism in an academic setting is like committing murder," Cort says. "I knew it could get me tossed out of school. I thought I was in trouble, even though I knew I didn't do anything wrong."
Cort says she knew that she hadn't plagiarized Constantine, because she was aware that Constantine had written on the same subject, and so she purposefully steered clear of her material. Cort also believes that Constantine hadn't even read the paper before making the accusation.
But then, Cort says, things got weird. Despite her accusation, Constantine never pursued official sanctions. Instead, as punishment, she ordered Cort to cancel plans for the January break and come to her office.
Constantine had Cort mark each book in her office with the professor's stamp. The shelves in the office held hundreds of books. The job took several days to complete.
To Cort, it was like having to write her name on the blackboard over and over. She felt that she was being treated like a child.
"My boyfriend told me, 'She's hazing you,' and he wanted me to report her," Cort says. "But I didn't know who to talk to about it. If you said something negative about her, no one would believe it."