An Asian professor at Virginia Military Institute was denied tenure based solely on his appearance, he claimed Friday in a racial discrimination wlawsuit.
Lunpeng Ma’s lawsuit cites an ongoing investigation — commissioned by the state following concerns raised by Black cadets and alumni — that found VMI has a higher percentage of white tenured faculty than any other college or university in Virginia.
“VMI has a glass ceiling that hinders Asian American professors from being promoted to tenured positions,” the lawsuit claims.
Bill Wyatt, a spokesman for the state-funded military school, declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.
Ma, an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, was hired in 2014 and exceeded expectations in annual evaluations for the next five years, according to the lawsuit filed in Lynchburg’s federal court.
However, the department chair said he was uncomfortable with Ma’s goatee in 2019 and told him he needed to shave, the filing stated. Ma maintained a “modest and barely visible goatee” in observance of his Daoist religion, the lawsuit stated, and no one at VMI had previously complained about it.
“In addition to wearing his goatee, Professor Ma is the walking representative of Chinese culture and knowledge at VMI,” the lawsuit said in listing his accomplishments at the school.
While the department later voted unanimously to support Ma for tenure, a recommendation letter reportedly made a brief reference to his “professional demeanor” and said he did not dress appropriately.
In March 2020, the department’s Tenure and Promotions Committee denied him tenure “solely based on alleged concerns about Professor Ma’s professional appearance,” the lawsuit states.
Ma says the decision means he will lose his job and work visa and be forced to relocate to his native China. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for his personal and professional losses, but does not ask that Ma be reinstated to VMI.
In an email late Friday afternoon, Wyatt said VMI officials had just learned of the lawsuit and would “respond accordingly at the appropriate time.”
“VMI is committed to providing an environment that emphasizes the dignity and worth of every member of its community and is free from harassment and discrimination,” the email read.
Ma’s lawsuit accuses VMI of discrimination based on his race, national origin and religion. It also claims the college retaliated against him when he appealed his denial.
In June 2020, The Roanoke Times reported on the experiences of Black alumni, who recounted dealing with prejudice and petitioned the college to take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, which cadets were required to salute until a few years ago.
Later stories in The Washington Post described an “atmosphere of hostility and cultural insensitivity” and led to the resignation of VMI’s superintendent and the appointment of a law firm to conduct an independent investigation.
Since then, VMI has removed the statue of Jackson from its prominent spot in front of the barracks, named its first Black superintendent and taken other steps to address what Gov. Ralph Northam called its “outdated traditions that glamorize a history rooted in rebellion against the United States.”