A Black USU grad is suing after he says his professor drew a ‘coon caricature’ of him and the school did little to investigate

Greg Noel, who graduated in 2020, said the professor also made comments about his Haitian background. The professor was not ultimately disciplined.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Greg Noel, a Utah State University graduate, talks about his case on March 15, 2023. Noel has filed a lawsuit alleging he was discriminated against during his time at Utah State.

When Greg Noel saw the drawing, he immediately knew it was supposed to be him.

His features were exaggerated, though. Noel’s tall, groomed afro was depicted even taller and sticking out wildly. His thick eyebrows were thicker and angry and furrowed, along with a huge mustache that took up much of his face. His dark skin was darker, too. And his eyes looked almost crazed.

It reminded Noel, he said, of the racist “coon caricatures” drawn of Black people in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the South — showing them with dramatic and stereotyped features, like big lips and huge feet, and either an attitude of anger or laziness — that were used to argue for the return of slavery.

The drawing was created by his professor at Utah State University. The professor didn’t appear to realize others could see the image, as he played a prerecorded training on a screen at the front of the room. But the drawing reflected from his computer onto the screen, where it was visible to the class.

“I saw me in the sketch, but I saw this angry looking version of myself,” Noel said. Other students also recognized him in it, taking pictures of the display and sending them to Noel. “Hahah! Look what he’s doing,” a classmate texted. “Why is he drawing you?” said another in a text thread. “That’s totally you. So weird.”

Noel felt targeted by this professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the northern Utah school, and not for the first time. Now, Noel is suing USU for, he alleges, not taking his claims of racism seriously and failing to protect him from retaliation that he says has continued even after his graduation.

“Enough is enough,” Noel said last week, sitting with his attorneys, Michael Young and Lauren Hunt, before the lawsuit was filed Monday. “I felt betrayed by Utah State University. I felt completely betrayed.”

(Screenshot) A image included in the lawsuit filed by Greg Noel shows his picture next to the drawing that his Utah State University made of him in March 2020.

The professor he accused of racism still works at the school in a leadership position. Noel said he’s not naming him in the lawsuit for fear of further retaliation; the professor is involved in the mental health profession in Utah. Noel, 32, is currently working at a private practice.

The professor continually mentioned how much power he had over graduate students and their future careers, Noel said. That created an environment that Noel didn’t like, and the professor singled him out when he didn’t go along with it, Noel claims.

The professor came to attribute that defiance to Noel’s race, making off-color comments about his Haitian background and refusing to support him, the only Black student in the program, Noel said. “I was definitely viewed as the angry Black man,” he said. “That’s exactly what you see in the drawing. That’s how he saw me.”

After the sketch’s display in March 2020, Noel tried reporting his concerns to the school’s equity office, which recommended placing a warning letter in the professor’s file. That suggestion was dismissed by a higher-up administrator at the school, email records confirm.

The school responded with a lengthy statement Monday, disputing many of the claims and saying it attempts to “prevent discriminatory behavior, while providing a fair, respectful, and equitable process for all parties.”

The statement also noted: “When plaintiff attorneys seek to use the media to litigate their cases and reach out to The Salt Lake Tribune before the university even receives notice of a lawsuit, the public should be aware that they are getting one set of facts from one perspective.”

Noel’s lawyer said he outlined Noel’s claims for the school in May 2022.

Noel’s lawsuit comes as USU has faced a slew of lawsuits in recent years from students alleging the school also ignored their reports — mostly involving sexual assaultin the piano department, fraternities and the football team. Most recently, a former football player said he was retaliated against when he tried to bring concerns to light about derogatory comments made by the coach and then-police chief. He is represented by the same law firm as Noel.

The Logan school was investigated by U.S. Department of Justice, which released findings in January 2020 that USU often failed to investigate when it knew about misconduct and, as a result, “rendered additional students vulnerable.”

Noel said he’s filing his case now to show that the school didn’t make immediate changes following that report. With so few students of color at USU — 82% of the school is white and less than 1% is Black — he worries the school might not listen to future students of color reporting racism, he said.

Previous experiences with the professor

Noel said he was excited to start graduate school at USU after working for five years to earn the money he needed for the tuition. He had graduated in psychology from what is now Utah Tech University in 2013 as a first-generation college student and dreamed of becoming a licensed therapist here.

In October 2018, his first fall semester at Utah State, a computer he was using in a lab shorted out and deleted four pages of his assignment. Frustrated, Noel acknowledged, he shouted a few profanities and pushed a chair. There wasn’t anyone sitting near him. But the professor learned of the outburst, Noel said, and emailed Noel to say they needed to meet to talk about it.

At the meeting, according to the lawsuit, the professor accused Noel of being violent and questioned whether he was abusive to others, including his wife. Noel said he was shocked. He said he explained that he was upset about losing his assignment and said it wouldn’t happen again.

Noel said the professor then asked him in a derogatory tone: “Was that you going full Haitian?” Noel said he was speechless.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Greg Noel, a Utah State University graduate, talks about his case on March 15, 2023. Noel has filed a lawsuit alleging he was discriminated against during his time at Utah State.

His mom immigrated to the United States from Haiti in the 1980s. Noel was born in Florida. A big part of why he has pursued higher education, Noel said, is because his mom didn’t have the same opportunity, and he wanted to make her proud.

At that point, the professor, Noel said, gave him an ultimatum: Attend therapy to “get his anger under control” or leave the program. His attorneys say that schools cannot require a student to get counseling, but Noel said he signed up for counseling offered at USU to remain in the program. The professor emailed him repeatedly to ask if he’d attended a session, he said.

Noel knew that all students had to take several classes from the professor to complete the program. He was offended, he said, but tried to brush it off and move forward. He didn’t report it then.

The following summer, in 2019, he said, his group of seven classmates in the program — known as a cohort — were required to take a practicum from the professor. At the end of the semester, the students were encouraged by USU to submit a private survey about their experience in the class. Noel said he didn’t fill it out, but two students who did left negative reviews.

When the cohort returned for a fall semester 2019 class with the professor, Noel recounted, the professor was upset and asked who submitted the negative reviews, mentioning the importance of his continued support.

The cohort met outside of class and decided to collectively write an apology letter to the professor and buy him cookies, Noel said, to appease him.

Noel said he refused to sign the letter or chip in money for the treat. “It was ridiculous. I didn’t think it was appropriate,” he said.

When his name didn’t appear on the letter, Noel said, he believes the professor assumed one of the review writers was him. He began ignoring Noel in class discussions, Noel alleges, and the following semester, in January 2020, the professor drew the cartoon of Noel.

A ‘belittling’ reporting process

Noel filed a report with USU’s Office of Equity in March 2020 about his experiences with the professor. He felt assured that he was close enough to graduation — which was roughly a month away — that he could bring up his concerns without putting his degree at risk, even as he remained in two classes with the professor.

The process ended after two years, in May 2022, with no consequences for the professor. Noel said he felt brushed aside by the university.

“It was one of the most belittling experiences I’ve had,” he said. “I was under the impression when I filed that someone who experienced racism or discrimination would be taken seriously. But the Office of Equity is just there to protect the interests of the institution.”

(Tribune file photo) Old Main on the campus of Utah State University in Logan on Feb. 25, 2013.

When he first filed, Noel said, he was told to provide a list of witnesses who could speak to the allegations. He said none of them were ever contacted, but he said he learned that the school reached out to the people identified by the professor to support his side.

The school said Monday that “the university followed its discrimination policy, procedures and process to its conclusion and dedicated significant resources to the matter, both through the grievance process, working with him one-on-one to hear his concerns, and providing supportive measures.”

In August 2020, according to the lawsuit, the office found while the professor “vehemently denies any intent to depict complainant,” the image was offensive and included exaggerated features based on Noel’s race. The staff there also defined it as a “coon caricature.”

The office decided there was insufficient evidence of racial discrimination, but stated: “There IS a preponderance of the evidence to support complainant’s claims of hostile environment discrimination.”

That meant that the professor would get a letter of reprimand placed in his file. The consequences would have been stronger if it was found to be racist, according to the lawsuit and USU’s faculty policies, including possible suspension.

Noel appealed the decision. Meanwhile, he said, most of the peers in his cohort — who were all white — refused to talk to him. They were upset that he was challenging the professor, whom they wanted to maintain their relationship with, he believes. He hasn’t been able to join the local chapter of a therapy professionals society, he said, and he alleges that is due to the influence of his classmates and the professor.

In January 2022, the office upheld its previous findings and issued the written reprimand to be placed in the professor’s file acknowledging the inappropriate drawing.

The professor then appealed to the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee at USU, which reviews sanctions placed on faculty. Without talking to Noel, the committee voted to overturn the reprimand.

USU said in its statement Monday that faculty have a right to appeal to that committee.

A provost at USU said he disagreed with that decision, but added that the committee’s vote would be upheld and the discipline letter removed, according to a copy of an email in the lawsuit. The case was closed with that on May 16, 2022.

The university said it has since given Noel “a forum to express his concerns to the president’s leadership team, and many of his suggestions were incorporated into USU’s strategy for diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Noel’s lawsuit claims Utah State was deliberately indifferent to his reported concerns and hardly investigated. He is asking for the letter of reprimand to be placed once again in the professor’s file and for unspecified financial damages to cover the costs of his tuition and for the anguish the process has caused him.

“I just want accountability for USU to practice what they preach,” he said.

He also wants people to see him as he sees himself, he said: A happy and proud Haitian American, who is not a caricature and who will stand up for himself.