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Professor sues Duke for racial discrimination and retaliation

Jason Locasale, associate professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, filed a federal lawsuit against Duke University on the basis of racial discrimination, which he alleged stalled his career and academic advancement.

Describing Locasale as a “Bi-Racial Asian male of medium dark complexion, with Asian features,” Monday’s complaint argues that the associate professor has had his promotion to full professor delayed while the pharmacology and cancer biology department has provided “promotion and/or support” of 14 white male and female employees.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the University does not comment on ongoing litigation.

“Duke is committed to ensuring an environment free of prohibited discrimination and our policies encourage an inclusive community that respects and values all of its members,” he wrote.

Locasale’s complaint detailed allegations of Duke’s “discriminatory culture,” “interference with [his] research program,” “unwarranted denial of access to his lab, students, classrooms and to the Duke campus” and restrictions on his freedom of speech. 

The document also mentions “unwarranted investigations and audits,” “unwarranted harassment, bullying, retaliation and intimidation” and Duke compromising its contract by “[engaging] in fraudulent and negligent conduct.” He asserted that Duke’s alleged discrimination and retaliation on the basis of race, color and/or national origin violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

“As a result of Defendant’s unlawful and bad faith actions, Plaintiff has suffered lost wages, lost benefits, lost leadership opportunities, emotional distress and other compensatory damages,” the complaint reads.

In describing Duke’s allegedly discriminatory culture, the complaint points to past negative treatment of Asian employees due to their Asian identity. Although it does not explicitly name Megan Neely, the complaint mentions a former director of graduate studies who instructed students not to speak Chinese in the department’s buildings.

Donald McDonnell, who referred The Chronicle to Schoenfeld when contacted for comment, is mentioned more than a dozen times in the complaint. McDonnell, chair of the pharmacology and cancer biology department, allegedly ignored Locasale’s job expectations that he would lead an initiative related to cancer metabolism. He also allegedly treated Locasale “negatively” by insisting on small talk and eye contact, even when McDonnell had allegedly been told that “this is not within Asian culture.”

Locasale was told in July 2019 that he would be subject to a “‘cultural’ audit,” the complaint describes, which did not find any evidence of misconduct in his laboratory. 

Because the cultural audit was never defined, the complaint asserts that the audit was a mechanism to “harass, intimidate and bully” Locasale and undermine his reputation.

This lawsuit comes on the heels of Forbes’ employer diversity and inclusion rankings, which slated Duke as the top university, eighth-best nationally and best of employers in the education industry.

The Chronicle sat down with Locasale in September 2019 to trace his journey to Duke and the international prominence of his cancer research. In describing his proudest moment in his lab, he recounted that he was “one of the first people, if not the first” to incorporate many chemistry technologies to analyze metabolism in cancer, which are now ordinary practices in his field.

Nathan Luzum contributed reporting.

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