MU student accuses former minority chair of racist remarks, sues

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COLUMBIA - An MU student who identifies as Muslim filed a lawsuit against a biological sciences professor, accusing him of making inappropriate remarks about her religion as well as sexual comments toward her while he was the Minority Affairs Committee chair.

Fatma El-Walid filed the 11-page lawsuit at the Boone County Courthouse Monday against Michael Garcia, who was her professor for cell biology during the spring 2015 semester.

The lawsuit states El-Walid went to Garcia's office hours on March 13 when he made "offensive and unwanted sexual comments."

El-Walid said she got to his office hours around 4:35 p.m., and by 5 p.m., most of the other students had left, and there were only about nine students still in Garcia's office hours. El-Walid was the only female student in Garcia's office hours when he started making inappropriate comments toward her.

The lawsuit said Garcia had been discussing class material but then went off on a tangent and started talking about conspiracy theories and "directing repeated and offensive discriminatory statements against Fatma."

Garcia asked El-Walid several questions like, "Have you ever been called a towel head on campus before?" and "Did your parents water board you as a child in preparation for the future?"

The lawsuit lists other questions Garcia asked El-Walid including, "I hear your people hate the gays; are you a gay hater?" and "Are you a Jew hater?"

Garcia also asked El-Walid if she would "rather be with an experienced man, like himself, for one raucous night rather than having relations with 72 virgins."

El-Walid said she asked Garcia about a certain professor's class and testing practices and he told her to go ask the professor about his testing and if he doesn't respond to rip open her jacket, exposing an explosive device and say "Allahu Akbar."

The lawsuit also said Garcia made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad and told El-Walid she was heading in the right direction to become a terrorist because she wants to be a doctor. 

During that time, Garcia was the chair of MU's Minority Affairs Committee, as shown by the email below dated March 9.

El-Walid's lawyer, Azra Ahmad, said she didn't believe the claims at first.

"I really thought it was fabricated because it was so crazy," she said.

Ahmad said an anonymous student reported the incident to MU's Equity Office before El-Walid filed the lawsuit.

"I guess it was so outrageous that a neutral third party reported the incident," Ahmad said.

El-Walid is also suing the University of Missouri Board of Curators because the university did not allow her to switch out of Garcia's class or drop her grade from his class.

"She felt that Mizzou did not take her matter seriously," Ahmad said.

El-Walid said she asked to switch out of Garcia's class and be placed in another class so she wouldn't have to "endure further sexual harassment, discrimination and humiliation from Garcia."

The lawsuit stated El-Walid had been awarded a Missouri Community College scholarship to attend MU but lost the scholarship because her grades went down "as a result of the emotional stress."

El-Walid said she stopped going to office hours for other classes because she was afraid of being targeted by insults again.

She also asked MU administration to drop her grade in Garcia's class and let her take cellular biology again, but the university did not allow it.  

Ahmad said El-Walid didn't want to file a lawsuit but feels like she has to stand up for other students experiencing racism.

"She just wants to show them that you do not have to put up with such inappropriate behavior from anybody, even a professor," Ahmad said. "No one should tolerate racist and sexist comments."

El-Walid is suing for a minimum of $25,000. 

MU spokesperson Nathan Hurst said Garcia is no longer chair of the Minority Affairs Committee. His term ended Aug. 31.

Hurst confirmed Garcia was the chair for the committee when El-Walid alleged the incident during Garcia's office hours took place.

He said the committee's goals are to "examine all aspects of the minority experience at Mizzou for both students and staff."

Hurst said as far as he knows Garcia is still employed by the university.

KOMU 8 News reached out to Garcia's lawyer, Josh Oxenhandler, but did not receive a comment.

MU said it was unable to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to include quotes and information from El-Walid's lawyer, Azra Ahmad.]