Dental school professor sues Tufts, alleges gender discrimination and retaliation

Tufts University School of Dental Medicine building is pictured. Via Wikimedia Commons

Melissa Ing (D’89), an associate professor at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, filed a lawsuit earlier this year accusing the university of gender discrimination and retaliation for complaining of alleged sexual harassment. Ing is currently awaiting trial by jury. 

The lawsuit claims that Ing, who began working for Tufts in 2011, received inappropriate and uncomfortable comments and gestures from her former colleague, Roland Vanaria, who is 16 years her senior. 

Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations at Tufts, confirmed the university is aware of the lawsuit and reinforced Tufts’ condemnation of discrimination. 

“Tufts University prohibits discrimination, including sexual misconduct and retaliation for engaging in any protected activity, against any member of its community,” Collins wrote in an email to the Daily. “The University is fully committed to the equitable treatment of all employees.”

According to the lawsuit, the inappropriate behavior escalated in early 2017, when Vanaria “entered Dr. Ing’s office uninvited, and propositioned her, asking her to ‘have monkey business’ with him.” The lawsuit says Vanaria proceeded to approach Ing after her clinical duties finished in the evening, and, “state things to her such as ‘come on, lift up your lab coat,’ … and he would slap his thigh and say ‘come on Hon, why don’t you sit on my lap?’” As this continued, Ing complained to her supervisor, requesting that Vanaria be removed from her office premises.

In June 2017, Tufts’ Office of Equal Opportunity launched an investigation, described by the lawsuit as “severely flawed.” Ing felt her concerns were minimized and says she was accused of complaining solely in light of the #MeToo movement and upon learning that another female faculty member had complained about Vanaria’s behavior and subsequently left the school.

Vanaria did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Daily. 

According to a Boston Globe article published in March, Vanaria “said the accusations against him were ‘all BS’ … Vanaria had one 20-minute conversation with the Tufts investigator, he said, then never heard anything more.” 

During this time, Ing said she was bullied and ostracized by her peers. This persisted even after Vanaria was dismissed from Tufts in July 2018 for reasons unrelated to Ing’s complaints, according to the lawsuit. 

That year, Ing was denied promotion to the rank of full professor, and was allegedly met with silence or falsehoods when she requested reasons for the denial. More than six of her male colleagues were promoted during that year’s cycle, the lawsuit says. 

In 2019, Ing was again denied promotion on the basis of a qualification that the lawsuit claims she did meet at the time. A male colleague, who did not meet the qualification, was endorsed for promotion less than four months earlier, according to the lawsuit.

Given her experience as an educator and her winning several leadership and teaching awards, the lawsuit suggests that Ing’s continued denials for promotion were on the basis of retaliation. 

“[Ing] has been subjected to a hostile work environment due to her gender and due to having complained of sexual harassment,” the lawsuit states. “All of this is retaliation for Dr. Ing’s complaints of sexual harassment. The wrongful failures to promote Dr. Ing or to enable or allow her to apply for promotions when multiple male colleagues were receiving promotions, also constitutes gender discrimination.”

Ing, who is currently on medical leave due to the stress and anxiety caused by her work environment, said that her dedication to Tufts and to dentistry, and specifically her work to improve the lives and health of those with preexisting conditions, made the discrimination she experienced all the more difficult to withstand. 

“That is just one reason why the retaliation and discrimination that I have faced at Tufts has been so difficult to endure — but also why I feel compelled to speak out and to speak up,” Ing wrote in an email to the Daily. 

She said that she is suing Tufts because she believes there are others in her field and at Tufts enduring similar unfair treatment. 

“I know I am not alone in experiencing these forms of retaliation and discrimination within Tufts as an institution or within the dental field, in general,” Ing said. “My lived experience is similar to those endured by countless other women in my field and beyond. We all need to stand together and not let powerful institutions like Tufts silence us.”

Collins explained that the university is unable to comment on cases that are in litigation, but added that the lawsuit was shared with the media before Tufts was served. 

“It is unfortunate that this case has been presented to the media—and the public—with inaccurate and incomplete facts,” Collins said. “We intend to respond to the suit in the normal course of the litigation, and we ask that our community withhold judgment until all the facts are known.”