A 73-year-old white physics professor at Alabama’s Tuskegee University is suing the historically black college for what he says is age and racial discrimination.
Marshall Burns’ 12-page lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, contends his salary is 30 to 50 percent lower than that of Tuskegee’s younger professors despite his more than four decades of tenure at the private university.
The physics scholar began working at Tuskegee as an assistant professor in 1976, according to the lawsuit, and was promoted to full professor in 1980. Burns published a textbook that was recognized by the state legislature and was named Teacher of the Year in 1989, the complaint claims.
That same year, Burns’ lawsuit claims that when the school was seeking more money from the legislature, it was his “level of scholarship, and his white race, [that] helped Tuskegee University succeed in obtaining additional funding from more conservative legislators.”
“It’s just wrong,” Burns told The Daily Beast of his purported pay gap on Wednesday.
The Montgomery Advertiser broke news of the lawsuit on Tuesday.
Despite Burns’ purported accomplishments—and 12 verbal and written requests for a raise—the scholar’s current salary of $60,500 is equivalent to associate professor salaries, and younger full professors are making between $78,000 and $90,000, his lawsuit alleges. He initially filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in November 2018.
The university has “discriminated against [Burns] due to his age by continually denying justified requests for salary adjustments and by paying [Burns] less than younger, less qualified professors,” his lawsuit states.
“Notwithstanding Dr. Burns’ significant contributions to Tuskegee University, and his stellar help in getting it more money, Tuskegee has ungratefully kept [Burns] at an associate level of pay for his entire academic career,” the complaint claims.
Burns told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that he didn’t want to sue the school, but that he’d “tried everything else.”
“I’ve had what I consider to be exceptional students,” Burns told the Advertiser. “At Tuskegee, I’ve had classes with students who are go-getters and very smart. That’s what gives me enthusiasm to teach.”
Burns also clarified to The Daily Beast that he had never “felt any racial discrimination on campus” and has been treated “with respect,” but that “something has to be going on, to be totally ignored on this issue.”
“I’ve suffered financially, emotionally,” Burns added. “I kept trying to think of what I could do to make them realize that I deserve full-professor pay.”
Burns’ lawsuit asks for a jury trial and requests unspecified back pay for unpaid wages, damages, and attorney’s fees.
“We’d been trying to get them for over a year to do something for him” before filing the suit, said Burns’ attorney, Julian McPhillips, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“They offered him a few peanuts,” McPhillips said. “It was nowhere near enough.”
“We just finally gave up waiting. It was like waiting for Godot,” he added.
A Tuskegee spokesperson declined to comment to The Daily Beast on the lawsuit Wednesday, citing legal and personnel concerns.
Undergraduate students at the university are required to pay a minimum of $33,360 in tuition, board, and fees each year.
Data from the Chronicle of Higher Education for the 2017-18 academic year put the average salary for full professors at Tuskegee University at $91,095 and the average salary nationally for a full-time physics professor at a four-year private institution at $74,447.