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San Francisco State University employee sues over racial harassment

A person walks down a sidewalk toward a large glass-fronted building.
A student at San Francisco State University walks through campus on Jan. 26, 2022. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

A San Francisco State University employee and former student is suing the school after an ex-administrator allegedly made racist comments and referred to the plaintiff, who is a Black man, as a “runaway slave.”

The lawsuit says SFSU administrator Karen Rubin, the university’s former Advising Resource Center director, exhibited hostile and overtly racist behavior toward DeMauriae Vaughn.

Vaughn has worked at the university since 2001 and was under Rubin’s supervision from 2019 to 2022. The claim also argues the university—represented by the Board of Trustees of the California State University system—failed to prevent the workplace harassment, racial discrimination and retaliation Vaughn experienced.

“Mr. Vaughn and other non-white SFSU employees dealt with racism so severe that they spent their working days in fear,” the lawsuit alleges.

Rubin apparently had an obsession with the Civil War and kept a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee prominently displayed in her office, according to the lawsuit. Rubin also used images from the Confederacy as “examples of leadership” in internal meetings and told another academic advisor that she wanted to “get [Mr. Vaughn] under control.”

“The actions alleged in the complaint are completely unacceptable and contrary to the values of San Francisco State University and the CSU,” said Bobby King, a spokesperson for SFSU. “Vaughn is a valued member of the SF State community, who has had and continues to have a successful career working in support of our students.”

Attempts to contact Rubin were not returned by publication time.

According to her website, she previously taught race, ethnicity and women’s history courses at Florida State University. Rubin’s LinkedIn lists her as residing in Valdosta, Georgia. She is originally from Oklahoma, her website states.

The lawsuit lists other incidents in which fellow staff members called out Rubin for her alleged racist comments and behavior. Vaughn also alleges that the administrator threatened his job when he sought medical leave for anxiety and other physical ailments caused by Rubin’s alleged “daily racist harassment [and] hostile behavior.”

Vaughn previously reported Rubin’s behavior to San Francisco State administrators and to SFSU’s Equity Programs and Compliance, but says leadership dismissed his claims or dragged its feet in transferring Vaughn out from under Rubin’s supervision.

The university opened an investigation into Vaughn’s complaints in October 2021, which concluded in May of the next year and found Rubin “harassed Mr. Vaughn based on his race.” Vaughn was transferred to another department at the university six months after his initial transfer request.

Rubin continued to work at the university after the investigation closed and left on her own accord sometime after, the suit says. An SF State spokesperson disputed this claim, however, noting that Rubin resigned “shortly before the investigation was finalized.”

“The university also took immediate steps to remediate the workplace environment while the investigation was ongoing,” King said. “Had the administrator not resigned, the university would have terminated her.”

San Francisco State faculty and student body walk past empty classrooms on Jan. 26, 2022. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

“Ms. Rubin’s repeated race-based harassment of Mr. Vaughn and other non-white SFSU employees would be indefensible anywhere, but especially at an educational institution where diversity, inclusivity, and respect for all individuals should be upheld,” said Los Angeles employment attorney Arash Sadat, a partner at Mills, Sadat, Dowlat LLP, who is representing Vaughn.

Vaughn is seeking general and punitive damages, as well as repayment for legal fees.