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Former I&E employee Salman Azhar sues Duke over firing, alleges ethnic discrimination

A former Duke employee has sued Duke for alleged ethnic discrimination and other violations. 

Salman Azhar, M.S. ‘90, Ph.D. ‘94 and former managing director of the Duke Angel Network, which helps find investors as part of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, filed the suit Feb. 25, alleging discimination and other claims related to his placement on administrative leave and eventual termination last year. 

The complaint describes Azhar as “an Arab-American Muslim man of Middle Eastern descent” and alleges that he faced discriminatory treatment from Duke after he posted a link on Facebook to an article about the #MeToo movement. 

“Duke discriminated against Dr. Azhar when it placed him on administrative leave, banned him from Duke campus, and fired him based on ugly and pernicious stereotypes that Arab men are angry, misogynist, and dangerous,” the complaint states.

Azhar’s lawyer Laura Noble, an employment law attorney at The Noble Law Firm, said Duke professes to have high standards as a prestigious university, which pushed Azhar to file the suit.

“He felt that, unless he took action, this might happen to someone else,” she said. 

She emphasized that it was a “heartbreaking” decision for Azhar to file a lawsuit against the University.

“Salman has been a huge supporter of and contributor to Duke University,” she said. “He received his education there. He has spent many years of his professional life educating students there and trying to get investments to fund projects created by Duke folks.”

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email that Duke “does not comment on pending litigation, including this specific case.”

“I will note for the record that Duke is committed to ensuring an environment free of prohibited discrimination and our policies encourage an inclusive community that respects and values all employees,” Schoenfeld wrote.

Azhar posted a link Jan. 28, 2019 to a New York Times article entitled “Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women” on Facebook, according to the complaint. The document states that Sharlini Sankaran, director of translational programs for I&E, filed a gender bias complaint against Azhar based on his post. 

Sankaran then allegedly “accused Dr. Azhar of being inherently misogynistic because of his actual or perceived race, color, and ethnicity” in a Feb. 7 conversation. Azhar reported these comments to Jon Fjeld, his supervisor, according to the complaint. 

Antwan Lofton, assistant vice president of staff and labor relations, investigated the gender bias complaint and concluded that Azhar had not violated Duke policy, the complaint states. However, Fjeld allegedly accused Azhar of having a “‘cultural bias’ against women” in a Feb. 19 meeting. Fjeld then placed him on administrative leave Feb. 25, according to the document, as well as barring him from campus and forbidding him from communicating with “any Teaching Assistants, students, and D.A.N investors.”

Following his placement on leave, Azhar made a discrimination complaint March 1 against Sankaran and Fjeld with the Office of Institutional Equity, the complaint states. 

Lofton sent Azhar a letter from Fjeld April 10 “notifying Dr. Azhar that his appointment as managing director of the Duke Angel Network will expire on June 30, 2019 and will not be renewed,” according to the complaint. 

The complaint alleges that Duke discriminated against Azhar because of his Arab-American background when it placed him on administrative leave and then terminated him and that the University has not expressed “any reasons for taking adverse employment actions” against him. He also faced retaliation on the basis of race, color or ethnicity, according to the document, after he reported Sanaran’s alleged discrimination to Fjeld and after he filed his OIE complaint.

The complaint also alleges that Duke wrongfully terminated Azhar and illegally withheld a $60,000 bonus that he had earned for attracting angel investors. Fjeld acting in his capacity as an agent of the University also slandered Azhar, according to the document, harming Azhar’s professional reputation.

In addition, the document states that Azhar was unable to attend religious services, receive medical care from his medical service providers, contact D.A.N. investors or teach classes because he was banned from campus and from contacting certain people, along with other harms. These restrictions, as well as alleged false statements by Fjeld, caused Azhar intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), according to the complaint.

Azhar, Fjeld, Lofton and Sankaran did not respond to requests to comment from The Chronicle in time for publication. Schoenfeld wrote in his email to The Chronicle that he was “responding on behalf of Jon Fjeld, Sharlinin Sankaran and others” that The Chronicle had attempted to contact. 


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