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STATUE OF LIMITATIONS

A BLACK MAN SUES THE COLORADO INSTITUTE OF ART OVER AN APE-FIGURINE JOKE AND OTHER ALLEGED HARASSMENT.

Jon Dickerson's job reminded him a lot of Glengarry Glen Ross. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Mamet play, frantic salesmen scramble for good leads--prospective buyers--doled out by their boss so they can sell dubious timeshares.

Instead of selling real estate, though, Dickerson sold education. Beginning in 1989, when he was hired as an assistant director of admissions for the Colorado Institute of Art, he was charged with filling the two-year trade school's classrooms with tuition-paying students. According to the school, he didn't do it very well. Dickerson was fired in October 1993.

Then again, the art school apparently wasn't a very nice place for Dickerson to work. Dickerson, who is black, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing school officials of racial harassment that at times was so egregious it was almost comic.

Dickerson says he encountered good old-fashioned bigotry from his boss, former director of admissions Barbara Browning (now an administrator at the school), and from the institute's former president, William Bottoms. For example, he says Bottoms insisted on repeatedly calling him "Curly."

"I'm thinning on the top," Dickerson says. "So I asked him, `Why do you call me Curly?' He said, `Because your hair is curly.' I said, `I would appreciate it if you didn't call me that.' And he said, `Okay, Curly.'" Also, Dickerson says Bottoms frequently rubbed the top of his head when passing by.

Dickerson, who during his tenure at the institute was one of only two black employees, also recalls an incident that occurred when the school started its new culinary program. "We were all supposed to introduce ourselves to the new instructor," he says. "When it got to be my turn, Browning said, `Do your black thing for the man.' I said, `What do you mean by that?' She just smiled and said it again: `Do your black thing for the man.' I asked her three times what she meant, but she never answered me."

In yet another instance, Dickerson says, he arrived at a Friday morning meeting to this greeting from Browning: "J.D., is it true black men are hung better than white men?" Dickerson recalls answering, "How dare you ask me that?" and walking out of the room.

Then there was the ape statue.
"It was Christmas 1992," Dickerson says. "At the Christmas party, Browning gave me an ape statue. It's about six inches tall, made of brass. It has a long tail, and its arms and legs reaching up, holding on to a tree. It was supposed to a business-card holder. But I already had one."

He continues: "There were about 25 people in the room, and the whole place went silent. She just giggled and thought it was a big chuck. But several employees came up and apologized. They all said it was offensive, inappropriate, degrading." Dickerson says Browning later criticized him several times for not putting the statue on his desk.

Dickerson says the alleged mistreatment stood out all the more because the trade-school recruitment game is so cutthroat. For instance, he claims that when he refused to play along with Browning's attempts at racial humor, she withheld valuable leads--names of students interested in attending the art school.

"She would just cut you off from leads on any given day," Dickerson says. In a year, he says, he received 300 to 500 fewer leads than other assistant admissions directors. Meanwhile, he says he was expected to corral 120 new students per year into the art institute's classrooms. Simply enrolling someone didn't count, either: The student had to be at his desk on the first day of class. "It's a numbers game," says Dickerson.

The CIA set unrealistic recruitment goals for all its admissions officers, adds Dickerson--"Nobody made the numbers." But he contends that only he was held to them.

The art institute has a different take on Dickerson's problems. An attorney representing school officials says they decline comment. But in a legal filing, in which officials for the school offer a blanket denial to Dickerson's charges, they suggest that Dickerson simply didn't have a very good sense of humor.

"As is characteristic of sales jobs, the position of assistant director of admissions is a demanding job," the legal filing says. "The employees in the admissions department at the art institute cope with the pressure inherent in a sales job by fostering a team-oriented and laughter-filled environment in which to work.

 
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