St. Joseph’s University fired adjunct math professor Greg Manco in the first week of May, roughly four months after he filed suit against the university in the wake of a controversy in which the university investigated but did not fire him over a small number of tweets that some alleged were racist.
According to a new court document, Manco claims the university fired him for allegedly violating federal privacy laws when he indicated in his lawsuit that one of the students who complained about his tweets received an “F” in his class years before. The original lawsuit also published email chains between him and students.
Manco and his attorney believe the ability to detail allegations in lawsuits must supersede any elements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.
Furthermore, they say the university knows this, and is using the FERPA claim as a “pretextual” reason to fire Manco.
As a result, Manco and his team have asked the court’s permission to file an updated complaint which would essentially tack on the claim that the university’s firing is the retaliatory coup de grace in a battle unfolding now over fifteen months.
In February 2021, a small number of people flagged a tweet by Manco to St. Joe’s, alleging the tweet was racist. The tweet, which advocated against reparations for the descendants of slaves, was published from an account that did not directly name Manco as the author, nor did the account affiliate itself with St. Joe’s in any way.
Manco was immediately placed on administrative leave for an investigation that lasted three months — the remainder of the semester. The investigation’s findings — never publicly released — were obviously not robust enough to fire Manco at the time, but also stopped short of completely exonerating him. Manco, however, maintains the unversity told him privately he was cleared.
“The potential outcomes of an investigation include a finding of more likely than not that a violation of policy occurred, a finding of more likely than not that a violation of policy did not occur, or no determination could be made. In this case, a definitive determination could not be made due to insufficient evidence,” said university communications officer Gail Benner at the time.
Not long after, the university declined to renew the annual contract Manco had enjoyed for more than a decade, a decision St. Joe’s said was related to budget and enrollment pressures. However, the university kept him on as an adjunct, a significant demotion because Manco suffered a serious drop in pay and benefits because of the changes.
He also lost his ability to continue as an assistant coach with the university’s baseball team.
Manco filed a federal lawsuit in January alleging defamation, civil conspiracy, and other charges.
In the original complaint, Manco says the entire controversy was primarily manufactured by a St. Joe’s alumna, Hadassah Colbert. He claims Colbert orchestrated an outrage campaign that pushed the university into the investigation.
“Colbert was a student of Dr. Manco, in the Spring of 2017, receiving a final grade of F. Colbert never complained about any type of bias or discrimination by Dr. Manco while a student of his” in the Spring of 2017, the original complaint says.
An emailed request for comment to Colbert’s attorney was not returned or was not successful.
In dismissing Manco from his adjunct position, the university said Manco violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. Much in the same way the federal law known as HIPAA prevents doctors from divulging private medical information about their patients, FERPA prevents educators from divulging certain aspects of a student’s learning career.
According to a federal Department of Education website, one provision of FERPA allows that “If an educational agency or institution initiates legal action against a parent or student, the educational agency or institution may disclose to the court, without a court order or subpoena, the education records of the student that are relevant for the educational agency or institution to proceed with the legal action as plaintiff.”
Even though the FERPA language does not directly contemplate instances in which a professor might sue the university, Manco and his legal team believe that he is covered by the clause, or by the broader spirit of the law.
St. Joe’s did not confirm or deny Manco’s current account that he was fired this month over a FERPA violation. The university also declined to comment on Manco’s claims of retaliation, citing the ongoing nature of the lawsuit.
While Manco claims in the filing that Colbert never complained against him directly, she did agitate against the university administration in a 2018 incident.
In that instance, Cary Anderson, the associate provost and vice president of student life, admitted to using the n-word as part of the process in investigating an instance in which a racial slur was discovered on the door of two students.
The student newspaper, The Hawk, characterized Colbert as one example of a student who wanted Anderson fired.
“There’s no reason that he should have been able to say the n-word, hard ‘-er,’ so easily as he did,” Colbert said to the paper about Anderson. “For him, the person to be handling a racial bias case, just to have it fly out of his mouth like that, that’s very shady.”
Manco, meanwhile, has alleged that the university breached multiple elements of its employment handbook and guidelines, and that the investigative findings presented to him said that the university had found “no evidence” of any wrongdoing on his part — a characterization different from the statement put out by the university, which said there was insufficient evidence.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports.