Admissions dean accused of discrimination by employees

The Tufts admissions office is pictured on Oct. 23. Natalie Brownsell / The Tufts Daily
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An external law firm is investigating the Tufts admissions office following complaints from employees who allege discrimination on the part of office leadership, according to current and former admissions officers and emails obtained by the Daily. 

Since the arrival of current Dean of Admissions JT Duck in fall 2019, employees allege that the office has suffered from questionable leadership, abrupt departures, retaliation and behavior from the dean that employees characterized as racist, sexist, transphobic and antisemitic. 

At least 22 employees, which today would make up about half of the office staff, have departed the undergraduate, graduate and SMFA admissions offices since August 2019. 

In interviews with the Daily, nine current and former admissions employees — speaking on the condition of anonymity — described how a “toxic” workplace culture contributed to the departures of many of these staff members. 

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Employees also alleged that Duck ignored reports of discrimination and punished criticism of his leadership, prompting at least two employees to lodge complaints against him with Tufts’ Office of Equal Opportunity.  

McCarter & English, the law firm hired by the OEO, has interviewed current and former staff about their experiences in the admissions office and working with Duck, according to emails obtained by the Daily and interviews with former admissions officials. The investigation has been underway since at least June. It remains unclear when it will conclude.

McCarter & English and the Office of Equal Opportunity did not respond to requests for comment. Duck declined to comment on the allegations, citing “respect for the university’s processes and procedures, and the important reasons for maintaining the privacy of all involved.”

Tufts’ executive director of media relations, Patrick Collins, said the university typically doesn’t comment on personnel matters. “When allegations are made by community members regarding workplace matters, the University regularly reviews those allegations consistent with applicable policies and procedures. The existence of any such review is not evidence of wrongdoing; it is the first step in a fact-finding process,” he wrote in an email to the Daily. 

Employees said some of the conditions that led to their departures, including what they described as low pay and heavy workloads, are common in higher education. But the allegations contradict the university’s public commitment to equity and inclusion.

Sources also alleged that workplace pressure affected not only employees but the applicant pool as well. At least one former admissions employee was asked to read as many as 90 to 100 applications per day and work on weekends, which they said kept them from spending more than about five minutes assessing each candidate. 

“I couldn’t at the end of the day remember anyone I read. I’ve never worked in an admissions office where I didn’t have three or four standout applicants I could remember at the end of the day,” a former assistant director of admissions said. “That sheer amount of volume made it feel like we weren’t giving a lot of respect to our candidates who were applying.”

One former employee recalled Duck allegedly misgendering applicants and making jokes about pronouns, and another alleged that an administrative push to recruit more “conservative” Jews spawned animosity toward Jewish applicants while prioritizing some over others. 

“I have always sought to create an environment in which differences are respected and values of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are embraced, and I remain committed to doing so moving forward,” Duck wrote in a statement to the Daily. “As a manager, I fully support the right of individuals to raise their thoughts and concerns with me and to seek redress from the university’s established processes if they feel their concerns have gone unheard.”

The allegations come just months after the university’s two chief diversity officers both left their positions following an administrative reshuffling in the provost’s office and amid accusations of a workplace culture that contradicted anti-racist commitments. The revelations also coincide with a period of increased public scrutiny of diversity in admissions, as the Supreme Court weighs outlawing affirmative action.

Duck ignored reports of discrimination, employees allege

In an admissions office meeting following George Floyd’s murder, Duck openly encouraged employees to speak up about their experiences with racism in the workplace, current and former employees said. But when they did, it became clear to some that Duck’s rhetoric was “performative.”

One former admissions employee and alum said that once Duck prompted discussions of discrimination, it “opened Pandora’s box.”

“People started speaking up about what they were experiencing, who is doing what to them, how it was impacting their work and their well-being and how they’ve been reporting up the chain — but nothing’s happening,” the former employee said. “From what I experienced, JT Duck got overwhelmed, didn’t realize there [were] this many issues in the office and tried to shove the box closed — but it was too late.”

Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Duck allegedly asked two Black female employees to run a “professionalism workshop” for the entire admissions office, a task that the former employee said was not included in their job description. They described it as an emotional burden and an act of performative allyship on Duck’s part.

Multiple former employees said that while Duck had an “open-door policy” for people to share their experiences of workplace discrimination, he would dismiss claims of discrimination during discussions.

One former employee alleged that Duck punished them for questioning his decisions.

“JT rewards loyalty to him above all else,” the employee said. “And on the other side of the coin, he punishes what he perceives as disloyalty to him. … There were some people who would speak out in staff meetings about concerns on various processes — and JT targeted them, including myself.”

During their performance review, a process that they said affects employees’ salary, the employee said they were “blindsided” by Duck after he allegedly overrode at least two managerial levels to lower their score.

The employee claimed that the lower-than-expected performance review was a punishment for their tone in a meeting.

Another former employee told the Daily they experienced “a culture of antisemitism within the Tufts admissions office.”

In a team meeting, according to former employees, Duck asked admissions staff to recruit “more conservative Jews.” But when asked to clarify whether he meant politically conservative Jews or members of the conservative Jewish movement, Duck allegedly did not know the answer to the question.

Following the meeting, an employee said other staff were confused about what Duck meant. They alleged that Duck’s ask — and the ensuing confusion — built resentment toward Jewish applicants. 

Employees say they were overworked while their concerns remained unaddressed

Multiple sources recall feeling overworked when reading applications. One source said they worked 60 hours per week over the course of several months. Another employee said the office was at one point “like a mill: trying to produce, meet our expectations, but also overworking ourselves in the process.” Another said they were “doing the work of at least two people.”

“COVID-19 put everything into sharp focus — all of the stressors, all of the asking people to sacrifice and put themselves second for the students when it’s actually just benefiting the administration,” one former employee said. “There was a lot of talk about work-life balance, yet none of that came through structurally. We were asked to do twice as much work with less time.”

A former assistant director of admissions said that they were reading triple the number of applications each day than at her previous job at a large public university.

“That volume … felt like a mountain you were climbing up every day, and you fell off the side of it the next one, and just were constantly trying to come up and never felt like you quite got there,” they said.

The assistant director worked in the admissions office for seven months before resigning in the middle of the application-reading period.

“I didn’t get into a job that underpays me for an insane amount of work, where I get yelled at 24/7 and was told that I would be helping students, only to end up finding that I’m burning myself on both ends,” they said. “I had planned to be in higher ed for my entire career, and Tufts pretty much broke that for me.”

At a certain point for one former employee who identifies as Black, alleged microaggressions in the workplace — coupled with the added stressors of the pandemic — triggered physical health issues. 

“[Duck said] just get your work done,” they said. “And at the same time, [microaggressions are] affecting my mental health, my physical health. My doctors are seeing an impact. My family and friends are seeing an impact.”

The employee later left the admissions office, partially out of concern for their health.

“You should not have to be on medication to do a job; you should not have to be seeking a therapist for the anti-Black racism you’re experiencing at work,” they said. “That is why I left, regardless of being an alum.”

‘This is not how you treat your friends’

Multiple employees described Duck’s behavior as “toxic positivity.” 

“He would start every meeting with ‘Hello friends!’” one former employee said. “This is not how you treat your friends. … You don’t allow your friends to be discriminated against and then be dismissive when they bring [discrimination] to your attention.”

Despite his openness to hearing workers’ experiences of discrimination, former employees alleged that Duck knowingly promoted people who had formal complaints of discrimination lodged against them.

Employees also recounted alleged microaggressions from Duck. In one instance, a former assistant director of admissions alleged, Duck repeatedly misgendered applicants despite being corrected.

“I found myself correcting and correcting … [Duck and] directors about applicants’ pronouns,” she said. “It felt like there was less sensitivity to queer, trans and non-binary students, which affected me, really, mentally as a queer person.”

The same employee recalled reporting instances of sexism to HR, but said that her complaints were largely ignored. She eventually decided to leave without having another job lined up.

“Duck was leading Tufts astray from what I enjoyed about the university and admissions,” she said. “I couldn’t stay any longer.”

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