N.C. Appeals Court upholds professor’s firing after sending racially-charged letter

Court documents state his firing was based on three alleged acts of misconduct that happened between the fall of 2015 and the fall of 2017.
The N.C. Court of Appeals has upheld a college professor's firing.
The N.C. Court of Appeals has upheld a college professor's firing.(Pixabay)
Published: Apr. 7, 2023 at 1:37 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) - “They still look at you as a wanna be white, an international [explicit], an international [explicit], and an international [explicit] (lol) because you display that kind of behavior. You will never get it. Wake up.”

Those are some of the words Alvin Mitchell, a Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) professor, sent his department chair several years ago and the words that, in part, led to his firing from the university.

Mitchell, who was hired in 2006 as an associate professor of justice, appealed his firing by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors citing First Amendment rights. After multiple appeals by lower bodies of government, the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld his dismissal.

According to the opinion filed on April 4, his firing was based on three alleged acts of misconduct that happened between the fall of 2015 and the fall of 2017.

The letter was written during the 2016-2017 academic year after two students attempted to get funds to attend the Race, Gender & Class Conference in New Orleans to present research findings.

That funding was not approved but another professor recommended a conference by the American Society of Criminology to the students, court documents state. One of the students believed they may have been encouraged to look into that conference because it was, “primarily Caucasian,” according to appeals court documents.

When Mitchell learned of the conversation, he reportedly wrote the letter to one of his direct supervisors, who spoke to the students.

Court documents reveal it read, in part: “After all these years, it is amazing that you still think that anything white is better. I looked up the ASC and nothing but a bunch of white men (some white women) are running it. Keep promoting and praising these white folks who are associated with the ASC.”

Mitchell’s supervisor believed the letter created a hostile workplace, and while she didn’t file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she did report it to the college dean and provost and sent them a copy of the letter, according to the court ruling.

One of the other two allegations of misconduct stemmed from supervisors being unable to reach Mitchell to discuss a student receiving a grade of “incomplete” in his class, ultimately leading to an argument where the police were called, according to court records.

The third instance stemmed from Mitchell’s constitutional law class being reassigned to another professor, leading him to email his department heads less than a week before the start of the fall 2017 semester to tell them he didn’t feel comfortable teaching the course given to him in lieu of the constitutional law course.

He was not allowed to change courses and one day after the semester began, was informed that he had failed to open an online course he was teaching, according to court records.

“Petitioner responded by stating ‘I do not know my schedule anymore ….” court documents stated.

On Aug. 31, 2017, Mitchell was given notice of WSSU’s intent to discharge him. Months later, on March 7, 2018, the chancellor issued his decision and upheld the provost’s decision to fire Mitchell.

Mitchell appealed the decision to the college’s Board of Trustees --- the board upheld the firing.

Unable to convince the Board of Trustees to overturn his firing he appealed to the UNC Board of Governors. Again, his firing was upheld.

The BOG concluded there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the determination that Mitchell wrote and delivered to his direct supervisor a “personally and professionally insulting, racially inflammatory note,” court records state.

According to the BOG’s decision, members also found that Mitchell “erroneously characterized[d]” his letter to his supervisor as one “written by him in his capacity as a private citizen, on a matter of public concern,” according to court documents.

Mitchell’s appeal eventually made it to the N.C. Court of Appeals. One of the issues was whether his firing was in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech because the dismissal was based, in part, on the letter he sent his supervisor.

The appeals court stated in its decision that Mitchell contended, without citation, that his letter was “an impassioned plea,” and a “strongly worded condemnation of racism within academia and (the supervisor’s) perceived participation in that racist culture.”

According to the ruling, Mitchell’s letter was nothing more than an expression of his “personal grievances” toward his department head and his displeasure with her decision not to provide funding for the conference he preferred.

“That Petitioner did so by invoking his own racist epithets does not convert his letter into one addressing a matter of public concern,” the court’s ruling read in part.