By last October, nearly two years had passed since plagiarism allegations had first been made to the administrators of Columbia Teachers College against one of its professors, Madonna Constantine. Last week, the Voice detailed those allegations and the ways in which college administrators initially protected Constantine [“Columbia’s Knotty Noose Problem,” July 2]. Eventually, the college hired an outside law firm to look into the allegations, and was close to releasing the results of that investigation when suddenly, a noose showed up on Constantine’s door and the professor became the center of worldwide attention.
In hindsight, the timing of the incident appears suspicious. But at the time, it generated enormous positive attention for Constantine.
Lawyers in tow, she led a demonstration on the Teachers College steps. Students chanted and waved signs with slogans like “Intolerance is Intolerable” and “Say No to Racism.” Media requests poured in from around the world.
The next morning, the professor appeared on Good Morning America. She choked up slightly in the interview, calling the incident “very personal” and “very degrading.” She told her interviewer, “The reaction from the college community has been awesome.” The incident, she said, had brought everyone together.
On October 12, a professional group, the American Counseling Assocation, offered Constantine their full support.
A week later, as the police investigation continued, Teachers College president Susan Fuhrman gave a speech lauding Constantine as a “distinguished” professor, and credited the “outpouring of support” she was receiving. At the time, Fuhrman would certainly have known about the findings of the plagiarism report.
In the meantime, as the media looked for any clue as to who might have targeted Constantine with the noose, Professor Suniya Luthar’s name surfaced as someone who might have a grudge against her. Initially, the college said nothing to refute the claim, even though college officials were well aware of Luthar’s role as whistleblower. Early in 2006, after she’d become department chair, Luthar became aware of the allegations against Constantine and had brought them to a dean—a close friend of Constantine’s—who reacted by investigating Luthar, forcing her from the chairmanship.
And now, Luthar’s name was being raised in connection to the noose. Eventually, Fuhrman tried to put an end to the rumors, blaming the media for a “wrongful and vicious campaign.”
“I regret that, in an effort to protect [Luthar’s] privacy, and under legal advice not to comment about her in response to any questions about the incident, even when asked specifically about her—we didn’t offer her the public support she deserves,” Fuhrman declared.
The college president went on to blame a “family emergency” and a “communications breakdown” and the presence of so many politicians for the poor response.
But it was too late. Luthar, a colleague said, felt as though she had been hung out to dry.
In the wake of the noose incident, detectives requested security videotapes that could help in their investigation. The college required a subpoena, but there were no cameras on the floor where Constantine’s office sits anyway.
In November, detectives with the Hate Crimes Squad secretly installed surveillance cameras on the floor. They told no one, only top college officials and the security director.
But they botched the job. People noticed sawdust on desks, saw holes in the ceiling, and figured out what was going on.
Constantine complained to the faculty executive committee and demanded a meeting with the administration. Vice Provost Bill Baldwin and Professor Lambros Comitas met with Constantine and her allies, Derald Sue and Marie Miville.
The three professors questioned the need for the cameras. The NYPD, they were told, was trying to catch the noose perpetrator.
Four hours later, Constantine sent out a faculty-wide e-mail disclosing the existence of the cameras and complaining about a “set-up”
“I think that was the turning point between her and the administration,” an insider says. “They realized she was not behaving rationally. For years people had been telling these stories, and they persisted in acting like Constantine acted rationally. That was when people at the top finally realized that she was a loose cannon.”
Fuhrman replied to Constantine’s e-mail curtly, the sources say.
Although the results of the plagiarism investigation were ready to be released about the time the noose showed up, the college waited another four months before making the investigation public.
On February 18, Fuhrman sent a terse e-mail to the faculty saying that the 18-month probe had found that Constantine used the work of a former Teachers College professor and two former students without attribution. Constantine had been “sanctioned.”
The school hasn’t disclosed what that penalty might be, but sources say it was just a letter of reprimand.
Constantine later rehired her attorney, Giacomo. And just two weeks later, he says he was able to assemble enough information to dispute the claims of Constantine’s accusers.
Giacomo wrote a letter to George Davidson, the attorney investigating Constantine, asserting that his report was “false.”
Davidson, Giacomo says, ignored him. “He went ahead without getting any information from us, and issued a second report which basically rubber-stamped his first report,” Giacomo says.
Constantine pushed on with her appeal.
On Feb. 20, Constantine sent out a broad e-mail attacking the plagiarism charges and the college president, calling the investigation a “conspiracy and witch hunt.” She called the findings biased and vindictive.
Fuhrman had gone from a key supporter to adversary.
“I am outraged by the President’s memo that summarized the outcomes of a ‘neutral’ investigation that I used the work of others without appropriate attribution,” Constantine wrote.
She also accused Teachers College of “structural racism.” “I am left to wonder whether a white faculty member would have been treated in such a publicly disrespectful and disparaging manner,” she wrote.
After using college stationery to threaten her accusers in a confidential investigation, she claimed “lack of sensitivity and due process.”
She said that her evidence had been ignored, and that her accusers lied—it was they who had plaigiarized her, not the other way around, she claimed. The college never should have indemnified her accusers, she wrote. And she also said that officials tried to blackmail her into signing a “false statement.”
On February 24, Suniya Luthar sent an e-mail to everyone at Teachers College, blasting Constantine for accusing the college of racism. She also claimed that the college had given Constantine “inordinately high protection and support.”
Luthar also accused the college of failing to back her up, and she publicly recounted her encounters with Dean Bailey, and Bailey’s efforts to remove her as department chair after she brought the allegations against Constantine.
Meanwhile, at a faculty meeting, Fuhrman told professors not to speak with the press. “I can hear the lawyers whispering in my ear,” she said, according to someone present.
In the February staff meeting, Fuhrman also told the faculty that she had offered Constantine a severance package, and asked her to “take responsibility,” but she turned it down.
Cort added her voice to the controversy in another e-mail. She recounted the content of the threatening letter on college stationery that Constantine sent her.
“What hurts me most is Dr. Constantine’s claim that the investigation was racially motivated,” Cort wrote. “I find it so ironic that this sojourner of truth, who feels she is being violated and publicly disrespected, has used her power and done the same thing to me, a young Black woman.’”
Luthar, meanwhile, is frustrated at the slow pace of Teachers College officials to act. “This has taken two-and-a-half years,” she tells the Voice. “I’m glad that after all this time, the truth is beginning to come out. I only wish the young people hadn’t suffered so much.”
Since word of the firing leaked out, Constantine spoke briefly in her own defense, and then fell quiet again. The college has said nothing since issuing its statement about her firing. But the silence doesn’t suggest inactivity: the Voice’s sources expect Constantine’s dismissal to produce one or more lawsuits. Whether or not the perpetrator of the noose on Constantine’s door is ever identified, there should be plenty of work for lawyers to go around in upcoming semesters.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 9, 2008