I am a graduate student and I believe I was discriminated against by my department. I am pretty hurt by it, but I do not want to give further details to protect my identity. I spoke to a lawyer and he said I have a convincing case and I would likely get a settlement.

I am curious about the non-legal consequences of doing so. I believe my department was legally and morally wrong. However, the people involved may have believed they were doing the right thing. I want to take action to claim my financial damages and to ensure this doesn't happen again, but I don't want to be blacklisted or see any sort of retaliation.

Has anyone here filed a discrimination complaint against their university? Should I expect retaliation? How can I protect myself?

  • 38
    Do you intend to remain at the school?
    – aeismail
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 2:22
  • 21
    How controversial would you say that your position is? I mean, no one likes getting sued, but on a scale of "just barely enough of a case to have some questionable legal standing" to "so obviously correct that almost everyone would agree", where would you say that your position stands?
    – Nat
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 2:58
  • 10
    My lawyer says the case is pretty clear cut, based on my account. I read the relevant law, and it makes clear what happened to me was wrong, but I'm not an expert. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 3:05
  • 40
    Some questions: What country is this? State school or private school? Big or small? And does your lawyer specifically have experience successfully suing such schools for discrimination against students? Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 5:53
  • 35
    I suggest you think about the lawyer’s code : “A man is innocent until proven broke”....
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 8:29

5 Answers 5


You might consider meeting with your university's ombudsman, if there is one. His/her job is to listen to concerns brought by any member of the university and to keep them confidential.

In particular, you could explain the details of the lawsuit you are considering, and ask what the possible non-legal consequences might be. This is likely to depend on the specifics of your situation, and h/she would be bound not to disclose these specifics to others.

The ombuds might also be able to suggest an alternative to a lawsuit. This would presumably not involve compensation, but the administration might be willing to take steps to prevent similar discimination from occurring in the future. Depending on your priorities, this is something you might consider.

  • 12
    This feels like the right next step... if "the case is pretty clear cut" as you report your lawyer saying -- to the point where the university would recognise they'd probably lose if you did sue -- then they may be willing to settle out of court in some way. Possibly still some risk of "cold shouldering", but probably greatly reduced if it avoids bad publicity. (Whether you want to avoid publicity may depend on the precise nature of the complaint).
    – TripeHound
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 13:10
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    Assuming you intend to stay where you are, you will be far better off if you can settle this matter internally.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 13:15
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    It's important to note that one way or another the ombudsman works for the university. Not for you. It is not your interests he works in the best interests of. OP's already got a lawyer. He should listen to that lawyer on who to talk to and what to file, etc. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 14:49
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    Just my two cents - I once had some problems with a university I was at. It wasn't discrimination or harassment or anything like that. It was a "problem" that the university Grad School management has essentially created for me due to their incompetence, and they wouldn't admit it was their fault. Anyway, I talked to the ombudsman and it was a waste of time. First he seemed very nice and seemed very concerned. But when I went to follow up he basically told me to go away and talk to the Grad School. Which I actually did, and was predictably a waste of time. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 15:32
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    Universities are often very corrupt places, and you may find out that the ombudsman is just interested in looking out for the university and not at all in helping you. I'm not saying you shouldn't take to him/her. It's worth a shot. Just be prepared for it to go nowhere. Actually, now that I think about it, the ombusman refused to talk to me - when I called to make a followup appointment, his secretary gave me the message. I suppose the jerk was too embarrassed to speak to me. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 15:33

Basically, I think you will typically not have too many troubles finishing your degree, as attempts to stop you from doing so will easily be constructed as retaliation and a rational department should typically decide that there is little to win and much to lose for them in such a situation.

However, as you say you want to remain on an academic career path - well, the reality is that this usually requires significant support (by your advisor and other faculty mentors) above and beyond just letting you graduate. I wouldn't worry too much about being "blacklisted", but in reality, most of us need somebody actually supporting us in our career - nobody explicitly throwing stones in our way is usually not enough.

You don't say who you are actually planning to sue, but if your advisor is not on board with these plans, or explicitly one of the involved culprits, it is difficult to see that he fully supports you in the way that is required going forward. It may be possible to find new mentors, but they would need to be people who agree with your decision to sue and who were largely unaffected by it. I don't think it's likely enough that the involved people change their minds and agree with you sufficiently that they become effective mentors down the road.

At the end of the day, I would assume that your decision to sue negatively affects your career planning at least to some degree. You will need to make the decision whether that's worth it, either because your compensation will be sufficient or because you can't let the discrimination stand.

  • 8
    This sounds like an awfully optimistic point of view. Depending on the people involved, it's very easy to get permanently blackballed in the entire industry by suing someone.
    – Magisch
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 7:45
  • 29
    There will be no physical black list (as such things tend to eventually leak and would cause way too much trouble). However, most disciplines are like small villages, and people in villages like to gossip and every villager has a reputation. The story of someone suing is way too "good" a gossip to be easily forgotten, and will remain part of the reputation of the OP for a long time. Whether that will be viewed positive or negative depends on the specific circumstances. But in general future employers don't want to be sued, and may view this as a risk. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 9:38
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    re "but in reality, most of us need somebody actually supporting us in our career - nobody explicitly throwing stones in our way is usually not enough" --> i second this. a successful career REQUIRES support other than just your work/merits/self... going it alone means a middling/flat career trajectory or being passed up many many times.
    – syn1kk
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 14:31
  • 1
    "...as you say you want to remain on an academic career path..." That's true but OP could maybe pursue this path also at another institution. Maybe you could also comment on how legal action would affect his/her choices elsewhere. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 20:48
  • 2
    @Trilarion I assumed that OP wants to pursue their career at a different university. To do so, one in practice still needs support from the currently place of work, unfortunately.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 9:59

The only way I can see a "happy ending" here is if the people involved in the discriminatory incidents meant well but realized they screwed up. In that case, there's a chance that they won’t cause any further problems, although as xLeitix mentions, they certainly won't be "in your corner" anymore.

Unfortunately, in most such cases, if the people involved don’t think that they did anything wrong, though, you may have to expect that there will be blowback.

However, retaliation is normally grounds for further charges and damages, so the best way to ensure there are no further incidents is for the university’s lawyers to talk to everyone involved and to indicate that retaliatory behavior will not be tolerated.

I’d love to be able to say there won’t be any future problems, but the truth is, every situation is unique, and you certainly can’t dismiss the possibility of people giving you a cold shoulder (or worse) if the lawsuit becomes public knowledge.

  • 28
    Also note that cold shouldering is impossible to outlaw 100%, even if to some it might be considered retaliation. If people like you and want to help you they can always bend rules or go the extra mile to help you. This is something that cannot be legally required. Point being that if the "retaliation" just consists of doing nothing extra or unusual to help you beyond exactly what is expected/required of them, it may still hurt you (by the absence of extra help). But frankly, that's something you should expect when you resort to legal charges against anyone.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 7:19
  • 43
    I like this answer, but I don't think there is a very realistic case where OP sues and the involved persons are like "it's true, we screwed up bad here, thanks for notifying us, no hard feelings". In reality, the people that OP sues will almost certainly feel very negatively about the incident, and I would not expect to ever get anything above and beyond what you formally need to get from them in the future.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 8:46
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    Retaliation can be very, very subtle. People that normally go out of their way to help students suddenly doing stuff only "by the book" for you etc.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 12:02
  • 2
    I'm sorry, but this is totally unrealistic. Stupid people might retaliate in ways that would leave evidence and open them up to further liability. Smart people will retaliate in ways that give them plausible deniability.
    – user1482
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 2:56
  • 1
    I acknowledge that. But to assume that there must be retaliation is excessively cynical.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 3:16
  1. Has anyone here filed a discrimination complaint against their university?

Personally, I have not, however, in a recent issues of Science describes sexual harassment at a remote field station and the resulting investigation that got the professor fired, pending any appeals.

  1. Should I expect retaliation? How can I protect myself?

Historically (and sadly), many academics have been fearful of retaliation. The articles I linked to describe how a researchers waited until after she had tenure to report her major advisor for sexual harassment during graduate school. She waited until post-tenure because she was afraid of her advisor ruining her career if she spoke out before tenure.

I would consult with your lawyer about how to document retaliation. Sometimes retaliation can be easier to document and prove than the original crime. Anecdotally, I recall training on discrimination that warned us not to retaliate because the agency had no successful discrimination cases filed against them, but did have successful retaliation cases.

  • 2
    After the #metoo Twitter movement last year, seeing this is somehow very disillusioning. I don't think your answer is wrong but I think it's very sad that we are still at that stage. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 20:52
  • 1
    @Trilarion I agree. If I recall correctly, Science had a few more articles on it as well. Also, their back page career column had a couple of articles on people who reported problems and had their careers sidetracked. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 23:22
  • 2
    As I understand it, the present case is about discrimination, not harassment or sexual assault.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 3:18
  • 2
    @aeismail As I understand it, the present question is about retaliation. The specific crime is irrelevant; it could be outright theft for all OP cares ("the president of the university stole my lunch money and the university supports the action, so I'm suing to get my $5 back"). Since retaliation is the subject, retaliation for action on other crimes is very relevant.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 16:25
  • @aeismail I focused on the question Should I expect retaliation? Also, discrimination and harassment, although different, can be administratively similar and often handled by the same people (e.g., EOE, HR, ect). Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 16:40

I am a graduate student and I believe I was discriminated against by my department. [...]Has anyone here filed a discrimination complaint against their university? Should I expect retaliation? How can I protect myself?

I'm very sorry to hear about your situation. I have been in a vaguely analogous situation, and a close relative of mine was in a more similar situation, sued, and won a settlement. My own situation was not about discrimination (I was not part of any legally protected class), but my relative's was.

One thing that isn't really clear from your question is what kind of graduate school you're in. If you're in grad school and hoping to become a dentist, then that's one situation. If you're in grad school and hoping to become a research scientist, that's different.

If it's something like the latter, then I hate to say this, but I think the reality is that if you do this, you are burning your bridges. Academia is a very small world, and finding a path to a permanent job is difficult. Even a very subtle whispering campaign can completely torpedo your chances. It doesn't even need to be a whisper. People can simply provide one-line letters of reference that don't say anything positive or negative. It's especially problematic that you describe the discrimination as being perpetrated "by my department." This means that you have zero institutional support going forward.

You may want to think in terms of choosing an entirely different life path, and not accepting any settlement that is too small to reflect the seriousness of this change in your life.

Of course, I know nothing about your situation beyond the sketch you provided, so this could be totally wrong.

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