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Gina Nahai sues USC for discrimination

Gina Nahai, the distinguished Iranian-American author, has filed a workplace discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the University of Southern California and one of its employees, Brighde Mullins, an award-winning playwright and poet who serves as director of the USC Dornsife’s Master of Professional Writing program. Nahai is listed on the Dornsife Web site as a lecturer in the writing program. Nahai alleges in the suit that she has been subject to discrimination, harassment and retaliation, which has “derailed [her] career, livelihood, and spirit,” according to a complaint filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court on Sept. 12.

Nahai, the award-winning author of four novels, a frequent lecturer and regular columnist for the Jewish Journal, is claiming she was “systematically discriminated against because she is an Iranian Jew.” In the suit, Nahai claims that Mullins, her department superior since 2008, has unfairly and unceremoniously denied her opportunities for advancement.  

Nahai is herself a graduate of USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program and has been an adjunct professor in the department since 1999. In the suit, she claims she has been seeking a promotion at least since 2008, when Mullins arrived, but says she has been repeatedly “denied the status of assistant professor despite her accomplishments” and that instead of advancing, Mullins reduced her role and teaching responsibilities. 

She further charges that Mullins practiced “open contempt,” “hostility” and “derision,” which included off-color remarks and references to her faith and ethnic background. 

By e-mail, Kelly Bendell, who works in the USC’s Office of the General Counsel, dismissed Nahai’s allegations. 

“The university is committed to a teaching and learning environment free from unlawful harassment and discrimination,” Bendell wrote. “Ms. Nahai had already made her claims known to the university prior to filing this lawsuit, and the university has determined that they are wholly without merit. The university is proud of its diverse and talented MPW faculty, including its director, Ms. Brighde Mullins, and will vigorously defend against these unfounded allegations.”

Due to the pending lawsuit, Nahai would not comment, and referred the Journal to her attorney, Gail D. Solo, who e-mailed the following statement: 

“We stand fast to the integrity and facts that have been set forth in the complaint. We will litigate this righteous cause, so important to persons of all faiths and backgrounds of Los Angeles, in the judicial system, not outside the system; and we look forward to justice being achieved.” 

Nahai’s 17-page complaint cites numerous instances of Mullins’ allegedly acting in a discriminatory and aggressive manner over a five-year period. The complaint claims that upon Mullins’ arrival at the university, her attitude toward Nahai was instantly chilly. Nahai claims that at their first meeting, Mullins made veiled references to Iranian Jews as “you people,” and alleges Mullin remarked, “You’re all very ambitious,” in reference to Iranian Jews.

In April 2009, just before Nahai was about to give a lecture titled “The Enigma of Iran” at the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, Nahai claims Mullins said to her, “I’m a playwright and a poet; I don’t need to know about Iranians and Arabs.”

Also in 2009, Nahai says she secured a scholarship from the Casden Institute at USC for creative writing students who wanted to focus on “Jewish life in America.” When she brought the news to Mullins, the department head allegedly said, “I have a concern about the Jewish theme.”

When, according to Nahai, she offered to fund her own visit to other universities in order to recruit new students to USC’s graduate writing program, Mullins allegedly said, “We have to be careful about how we represent ourselves. … It’s important to have the right face to represent us.” 

Nahai claims Mullins also removed photos of her and her books from USC promotional literature and the university’s Web site; cut her teaching hours by half “to less than living wages”; devalued her degree from terminal to non-terminal so that she was not eligible for advancement; and practiced “open contempt,” “hostility” and “derision,” according to the complaint. Nahai’s suit claims these actions isolated her from the USC community. 

The suit also charges the university with retaliation and accuses it of failing to protect her, claiming that when she tried to report the matter to USC’s Office of Equity and Diversity, officials refused to intervene or investigate. After she protested, the suit alleges the university tried to force Nahai to quit.

“Despite the relentless pressure on her to resign in disgust, plaintiff seeks only to be able to continue to teach, a true love in her life, and thrive in a discrimination-free work environment, exactly what our California’s anti-discrimination laws and constitutional protections guarantee,” the lawsuit says.

The suit seeks financial compensation for lost earnings, benefits, bonuses and salary increases, as well as punitive damages for emotional distress and an injunction. 

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