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IUP business professor accused of humiliating student

Mary Pickels
| Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

An Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate student has filed a complaint with the school's human resources department, alleging one of her business professors subjected her to humiliation and insults based on her sexuality.

Christina "Nina" Santiago, 23, called the Sept. 26 incident in her business policy class "one of the worst experiences of my academic career."

"I was belittled, humiliated, laughed at and was the center of a barrage of homophobic remarks," she said Thursday.

Santiago said the class, instructed by faculty member Dr. Maali Ashamalla, was discussing ethics and legalities. She said a male student said he thought gender reassignment surgery was unethical and should be illegal.

Ashamalla agreed, and called homosexuality "a sin" and "unnatural," Santiago said.

"I asked her, 'So are you saying that students like me who identify as homosexual are unnatural, abnormal and disgusting?' She replied, 'Yes,'" Santiago said.

Ashamalla, a member of the university's MBA faculty's management department, did not return e-mails or telephone messages requesting comment.

Santiago said she is now in an independent study with another professor.

"Up to this point, I felt pretty safe here. I never really felt discrimination based on sexual orientation," she said.

University spokeswoman Michelle Fryling confirmed that the school's human resources department had launched an investigation.

She said the outcome will be reported to Dr. David Werner, interim university president, who will determine whether any action should be taken.

On. Oct. 12, about 100 students staged a campus protest in support of Santiago, Fryling said.

"The students handled themselves quite respectfully. They stood outside in the rain for about three hours," she said. At one point, the dean and the department chairpersons of the College of Business went outside to acknowledge their concerns and say that an investigation is under way."

On Oct. 3, student Gina Szepesi, 21, staged a silent sit-in outside Ashamalla's classroom. Szepesi said she held a sign reading, "Hate is unnatural. Hate is disgusting."

Campus police told her to take her sign outside. She said when she did not immediately respond, she was arrested. A charge of disorderly conduct against her has since been dropped, Fryling said.

"This whole ordeal has made it difficult to focus on the reason we are here," Szepesi said.

In an August memo from the university's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Commission, Chairman Tedd Cogar wrote, "One of the most important things parents and families can do for their students -- and other family members -- is to never assume that anyone is heterosexual."

Cogar is an assistant director in the Center for Student Life/Student Conduct and an adviser to Pride Alliance. He said students who are bullied or harassed should report incidents, and encouraged parents, friends and other students to speak up if the victim does not.

On Wednesday Santiago raised the subject to John Cavanaugh, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, during a campus forum at IUP. He did not directly address the issue.

Yesterday, Fryling forwarded a statement from Cavanaugh denouncing harassment "of any kind -- whether face to face or online."

It noted Pennsylvania universities have hosted programs that address bullying and harassment, adding that several campuses, including IUP, have "Safe Zones" to provide resources and assistance.

The program is designed to improve visibility and support for gay and lesbian students and employees, according to its website.

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