Professor sues USC for alleged racial, religious harassment

A USC professor filed a lawsuit against the University Thursday, citing discrimination and harassment on the basis of religion and ethnic descent. 

Ali Abbas, a practicing Muslim of Egyptian descent who has taught at the Viterbi School of Engineering and the Sol Price School of Public Policy since 2014, alleged in the complaint that he was targeted by racial and religious harassment. The complaint also alleges USC did nothing after Abbas reported the jokes regarding his background. 

“Throughout [Abbas’] employment, continuing to the present, he was targeted and suffered through harassing conduct from [USC] and its agents and employees based on being [a Middle Eastern man and practicing Muslim],” the complaint read. “[Abbas] was extremely disturbed by USC’s refusal and failure to address or discipline the senders of the offensive texts, which indicated to [him] that USC endorsed and ratified the sending and content of the texts.”

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, the University said it would “review the complaint in detail” when it is received.

“Discrimination and harassment have no place at USC,” the statement read. “We do not tolerate behavior that violates our policy and take appropriate disciplinary action when it does.”

Abbas, who is also the former director of USC’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, which is funded by the Department of Homeland Security, said he received a significantly lower salary and administrative stipend than his predecessor, who was neither Middle Eastern nor Muslim. The complaint also claims that USC employees contacted DHS with false information about Abbas to deliberately undermine his working relationship with the department.

The complaint also claimed that during a 2019 incident in which USC learned of a threat of physical violence against Abbas, he was never informed of the threat or offered protection from the University.

“USC wanted to create a hostile work environment, and did create a hostile work environment for Dr. Abbas because he is a [Middle Eastern man and practicing Muslim],” the complaint read. “USC harassed Dr. Abbas using Islamophobia tropes, which other similarly situated employees were not subjected to who were not [Middle Eastern or Muslim].”

Abbas alleged he experienced severe emotional distress due to the ongoing humiliation and harassment he received, which ultimately led to his poor work performance and the creation of a hostile work environment, the complaint read. 

Abbas also claimed he was subjected to unfair workplace interrogations and disciplinary actions due to his racial and religious background. After these actions were taken against Abbas, the University allegedly made “false allegations” and threatened “more severe sanctions” in a letter, without allowing him to defend himself. 

“The harassing conduct … and the use of Islamophobic tropes against [Abbas] was done with the goal of crushing his spirit and forcing [Abbas] to submit his resignation, which is the only practical way to oust [Abbas] without wrongdoing since he is a tenured professor,” the complaint read. 

Before suing the University, Abbas filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and received a right to sue after exhausting his administrative remedies.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ali Abbas is the director of USC’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events. He is the former director of CREATE. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.

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