Former Student Demands Accountability After Alleged Mishandling of Discrimination Case


HuiLing Yang, Seattle U graduate alumna.

When former Seattle University graduate student HuiLing Yang filed a report against her professor alleging harassment in the classroom on the basis of race and national origin, she said she only wanted the university to acknowledge her experiences and to take responsibility for the ways Seattle U may harm marginalized students on campus.

In the end, Seattle U’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) ruled that they could not prove her case. After a year-long reporting process, she spoke to the pain she felt as she navigated a system she believes was not designed for justice or for healing.

“I was asked all the time, ‘Do you want money? Do you want your full tuition returned? Do you want this? Do you want that?’” Yang said. “I just never thought about that. I just want this not to be dismissed. I just want this conversation to be had so that change can happen.”

Yang alleges her case was mishandled by OIE and on Oct. 18, sent a document to Seattle U President Fr. Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J., detailing her account of the reporting process. She sent this document to eight other people on Oct. 22.

In her document, she demands an apology not just to herself, but to the entire Seattle U community from Sundborg, the OIE, the Dean of the College of Nursing Kristen Swanson and the professor who she alleges harassed her. She is demanding that their response be issued by Dec. 20, 2019. Both Sundborg and Swanson declined to comment on Yang’s letter, citing privacy law and practices.

HuiLing’s Allegations

Yang recalled a series of incidents— both in and out of class—that she believes constitute unfair treatment and harassment on the basis of her race and her nationality. This harassment, she said, began even before she started classes in the graduate program, at the College of Nursing’s pinning ceremony in the summer of 2017.

The pinning ceremony is a traditional nursing rite of passage in which nurses receive a pin that symbolizes the responsibilities of being a nurse. This was a celebratory occasion for Yang, who had just been credentialed as a nurse after the first four quarters at Seattle U and was about to advance into the graduate program.

She recalls walking with “exuberant joy and glory” across the stage. The audience, which included Yang’s daughter, cheered when her name was called. She received her pin and proceeded to walk across the stage for the next step in the ceremony by having a white coat symbolically draped over her by a professor.

Yang did not realize at the time that this would be the professor she would eventually file a report against. “As I walked up to [this professor], I heard [their] voice demanding, ‘OK, that’s enough,’” Yang wrote in her letter to university officials. Yang said she was stunned. She remembers continuing to smile, but asking the professor to confirm if she had heard them correctly. She recalls the professor smiling back at her and replying, “Yes.”

Yang walked off the stage confused by this interaction, saying she remembers wondering if the professor had said this to other students. Jane Sherman was an audience member at this ceremony, and she observed the moment when this interaction allegedly occurred.

“When the professor said something to her, you could tell that HuiLing had just been deflated,” Sherman said. “She was first surprised, and then this little collapse of that exuberance that she had felt and was expressing.”

According to Yang, this was the first in a series of hostile interactions with this professor. In her graduate school track, Yang was required to take all of her classes with this professor for the five consecutive quarters it took to complete her program, alleging that the harassment occurred throughout the entirety of her graduate studies.

Yang said her professor would criticize her in class, telling her to “speak clearly” and often interrupt her during presentations, while not doing the same to her white classmates. Yang also believes her grade was negatively impacted.

This professor also on multiple occasions allegedly snapped at Yang—which she said resulted in her “often becom[ing] withdrawn and unable to participate in discussions.” Yang alleged that her professor continued to single her out, mock her and shame her in front of the class.

Yang had been internally questioning her experience and recalls wondering if her experience and the feelings she was having were valid, until some of her classmates approached her.

“Two out of 10 other classmates approached me and said, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? Why is [the professor] doing that?’ And when these two approached me, I realized it wasn’t just in my own head,” she said. “I do not need to continue to minimize it or normalize it anymore either because it is true.”

The Reporting Process

Yang decided to report this harassment and met with Assistant Vice President for Institutional Equity Andrea Katahira at the end of her last quarter at Seattle U. On Aug. 3, 2018, she filed a formal complaint and sent a letter to her professor, with Swanson and Katahira CC’d. However, Yang said that she did not see justice through an OIE investigation, and she further alleges that the investigators “gaslit” and “retraumatized her.”

Yang said that from the very beginning of the investigation, she felt that the OIE dismissed her claims and undervalued her report. When the investigator asked Yang for witnesses to the alleged abuse, she had answered that everyone in her small cohort of 10 students could be a witness.

In response, she said the investigator asked her, “You don’t want me to interview everybody, do you?” Soon afterward, Yang contacted Katahira to raise concerns about implicit bias on behalf of the investigator.

“I said, ‘That’s a big red flag. How do you address your implicit bias here? You already are not trusting me. You already are dismissing me. This person has more in common with the professor than me. What’s going on here?’” Yang said. “I am dismissed from day one to the end of it. They had nothing to say to me about how they addressed their implicit bias.”

In this investigation, the OIE spoke with four witnesses. According to Yang, Katahira assured her that one testimony in favor of Yang’s allegations would be sufficient to prove her case.

Amanda Horvath was one of the witnesses interviewed by the OIE. Horvath scrutinized the investigators’ implicit bias and that the OIE never fully addressed these concerns.

Further, she said that questions were posed to her in a way that discredited Yang’s experience.

“I was asked to infer how I think or I thought HuiLing might respond to a comment made by the professor,” Horvath said. “It, to me, felt so out of line with the rest of questioning and in a way that made it feel like they already had some idea of what might be the reason for HuiLing’s experience that [it] wasn’t the professor’s fault, and they were looking for that in an answer.”

By focusing on Yang’s personality, as opposed to the bias of the professor, Horvath believes that the questioning was biased against Yang’s felt experience. According to Yang, this contributed to the gaslighting effect she felt throughout the investigation.

Further, Horvath said that the investigation asked for specific times and dates for experiences, but she believes that because implicit bias exists deeper than words and specific instances, the questions did not reach the root of the issue.

Horvath also followed up with Katahira after her questioning to discuss bias within the investigation. According to Horvath, Katahira told her in this meeting that the OIE has difficulty investigating implicit bias for this reason.

“I’m still not entirely clear on this, but I came away with this understanding that the process that OIE does is not a process that is looking for, or trying to expose implicit bias,” Horvath said. “If that’s not the case, part of the problem then becomes, well, what happens in a case where maybe you can’t pinpoint an explicit grading bias. But clearly a student wasn’t treated the same. And what does OIE do with that?”

Katahira said in an interview with The Spectator that the OIE engages in “professional development and training” to address implicit bias within its staff members and investigators.

Beyond that, Katahira said that she provides oversight of investigations within her office.

“The role of the investigator is to ask challenging, probing questions,” Katahira said. “It’s not necessarily a role where they’re affirming someone’s experience. They’re trying to uncover the facts.”

When someone comes to Katahira with concern that an investigator has implicit bias, she said that she works directly with the investigator to address this concern.

“Some might point to a particular type of question, and I assess whether, given the nature of the work, that was an appropriate question, and might try to help explain why that’s being asked,” Katahira said.

Yang was notified on Nov. 6, 2018 that the investigation had concluded. According to her letter, she was told that an update would be forthcoming within a week. Over a month later, the OIE finally delivered its verdict to Yang in a private meeting. Yang requested to bring a friend as emotional support, which was denied.

At this meeting, Katahira told Yang that the investigation determined that the professor did not commit any policy violation. A policy violation refers to “conduct that would violate the non-discrimination harassment policies based on certain projected classes such as race, national origin, sex, disability, so on,” according to Katahira.

She said in an interview with The Spectator that a policy violation could not easily be defined and often is determined on a case-by-case basis. Yang said that because only one witness’s testimony should have been enough to prove her case, she asked to see a copy of the investigation report.

This request was declined by Katahira. Instead of the investigation report, Yang said Katahira told her that she would send her a memo with a summary of the investigation. Yang followed up with Katahira over email in the beginning of Jan. 2019. She has not heard a response since then and has yet to receive the memo Katahira allegedly promised.

The Bigger Picture

In an interview, Katahira could not comment on Yang’s specific case, but she said that the OIE’s policy keeps investigation reports confidential, even to those involved within the case, in order to ensure that witness testimony is as truthful as possible.

Because the proceedings of the investigation were confidential, Yang said that the OIE did not show her true accountability. Though the OIE investigation determined that Yang’s case did not qualify as a policy violation, Katahira said that proving this point is not always necessary to take productive action following an investigation.

She said that oftentimes, though the OIE may not determine an explicit act of bias, many acts of implicit bias result in further action. This can simply include coaching and training, or in some cases, a non-renewal of a contract. She said that the OIE does not make any decisions regarding what that further action entails, and only provides information to other need-to-know departments about what the office learned in its investigation.

Because no Seattle U employees will speak to this specific case, The Spectator does not know the current status of the professor or if they have faced further coaching, training or other repercussions.

Dean Swanson said in a statement that the College of Nursing aims to facilitate conversation when students, faculty or staff raise concerns.

“In the College of Nursing, when students, staff, or faculty bring up concerns of feeling dismissed, misunderstood, or not-heard, our ideal practice is to listen and, if appropriate, suggest returning to the individual whose words/actions are of concern,” the statement reads. “If students, faculty, or staff are uncomfortable or unwilling, for whatever reason, to speak with the individual, we offer to support a facilitated conversation.”

If a person harmed is uncomfortable with a facilitated conversation, Swanson said the school pursues other intervention.

“If the offended person is not yet ready to enter into dialogue with the one whose actions were of concern, be it one-on-one or in the presence of a facilitator, we might offer to intervene,” she said in the statement.

In a separate interview unrelated to Yang’s case, Seattle U Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Natasha Martin spoke to the importance of preventing implicit bias and microaggressions in the classroom.

“Whether we’re talking about one incident or five incidents or 10 incidents, the research is pretty clear that it can impact a student’s ability to thrive in an academic setting,” Martin said.

To address implicit bias in the classroom, Martin has put together a Bias Prevention and Campus Climate Care working group. She said that it is important to ensure that whatever measures not only serve to report incidents of bias, but also to “repair and restore.”

Seattle U has also implemented “Educating for Justice Sessions” to discuss ways that the university can be more just and inclusive. Some of these sessions have turned towards specifically microaggressions. However, Yang believes that the problem does not just rest with the harm brought to her in the classroom. More important to her is the alleged mishandling of her case by the OIE.

“Today, the issue is not about if they will do something to that professor,” Yang said. “The point is not about the professor right now. The point is, new students in my position file this kind of case, and this was one of the examples of how they handle it.”

In the end, Yang sees this case as a failure on the part of Seattle U to uphold its Jesuit mission. When she first arrived in the U.S., Yang describes her position as being “critically vulnerable,” as a single immigrant mother who speaks English as a third language.

“SU has failed to walk its talk of social justice when students like myself needed it,” Yang wrote in her letter to Sundborg and other administrative members. “SU has failed me as a student, alum, and a community member.”

Following graduation, Yang now works as a school nurse for Seattle Public Schools and also volunteers for Social Justice Fund NW.

“I actually only applied to SU because I thought, well, you care about the vulnerable population. You said you are all about this, I looked no further…You said you are all about this. But unfortunately, no, not at all.”

Alec Downing and Frances Divinagracia contributed to this report.

Josh Merchant may be reached at [email protected]