Utah State graduate settles racism lawsuit for $45K after he said professor drew ‘coon caricature’ of him

Greg Noel had said he felt “completely betrayed” by the Logan school’s response to his allegations.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gregory Noel, a Utah State University graduate, talks about his case in his attorney's office on Mar. 15, 2023. Noel filed a lawsuit alleging he was discriminated against during his time at Utah State. He signed a settlement agreement with the school in June 2023.

A Black graduate sued Utah State University earlier this year after he said his professor drew a racist “coon caricature” of him that was displayed on the screen in front of his entire class.

When he tried to report it, Greg Noel said, he felt the process was “belittling” and the school did little to investigate. His concerns drew statewide attention about discrimination in higher education.

Now, Noel is set to receive $45,000 as a payout for what he went through.

The amount comes as part of a settlement signed by school officials this week that will also effectively end his lawsuit. The Salt Lake Tribune received a copy of the agreement through a public records request.

“With this case resolved, we’ll continue to move forward in creating a culture of belonging at Utah State University,” the school said, in part, in a statement Friday. USU does not admit fault in the case.

Noel’s attorneys didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Tribune.

When he initially filed his case in March, Noel had said: “Enough is enough. I felt betrayed by Utah State University. I felt completely betrayed.”

The case marks at least the fourth major settlement for the northern Utah university since 2018. Combined, the public school in Logan has paid out nearly $1 million for those agreements, which are ultimately funded by taxpayers.

Those other cases involve two lawsuits for sexual assault and one for retaliation, as USU has faced a slew of litigation over the past few years.

In Noel’s case, the school said it has worked over the last year to improve its outreach and support in its office of equity.

“Whenever there are allegations of discrimination, USU strives to address and prevent the behavior and provide a fair and equitable process to resolve grievances,” according to the statement.

In his court documents and in an interview, Noel described feeling targeted by a professor, who he said made off-color comments about his Haitian background and refused to support him, the only Black student in the marriage and family therapy graduate school program.

Noel said he chose not to name the professor in the lawsuit for fear of further retaliation; the professor is involved in the mental health profession in Utah and still works at the school in a leadership position. Noel is currently working at a private practice.

The mistreatment, Noel said, started in October 2018, during his first 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. The professor learned of the outburst, Noel said, and emailed Noel to say they needed to meet to talk about it.

At the meeting, the professor allegedly accused Noel of being violent and questioned whether he was abusive to others, including his wife.

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

Noel said he was stunned by what he saw a racist comment. But he tried to brush it off, knowing he had to work with the professor going forward.

After that, Noel said he felt like the professor was purposefully ignoring him in class discussions. The professor also continually mentioned how much power he had over graduate students and their future careers, Noel said.

Noel hit the tipping point in 2020, he said, and reported his concerns to the university after the white professor drew a cartoon image that Noel feels was supposed to be an exaggerated depiction of him as “the angry Black man.”

In the drawing, 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 skin was darker, too.

(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.

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 feet, and either an attitude of anger or laziness — that were used to argue for the return of slavery.

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.

Other students also recognized Noel in it, taking pictures of the display and sending them to Noel, according to his lawsuit. “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 filed a report with USU’s Office of Equity in March 2020 about his experiences with the professor — months before he was set to graduate.

The office found that the drawing was inappropriate and had created a hostile environment for Noel. It gave a recommendation to place a warning letter in the professor’s file.

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.

A provost at USU said he disagreed with that decision, but added that the tenure committee’s vote would be upheld and the discipline letter removed, email records confirm.

The process took two years, ending in May 2022, with no consequences for the professor.

Noel said he felt the university failed him in that resolution and by doing little to actually look into his allegations. And with so few students of color at USU — 82% of the school is white and less than 1% is Black — he worried the school might not listen to future students of color reporting racism.

The school said in February it updated its procedures, so there now isn’t a separate place for faculty to go to appeal an equity grievance; it now all happens in the equity office, according to a spokesperson.

That means what happened with how Noel’s complaint was handled shouldn’t happen again.