In March 2016, the University of California, Irvine issued a press release praising assistant professor Hung Duc Nguyen for receiving a prestigious National Science Foundation grant, but months later school administrators ignored overwhelming faculty recommendations for his tenure and instead terminated his employment.
Nguyen, who specializes in chemical and biomedical engineering, this month filed a 25-page lawsuit inside Orange County’s Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, offering his explanation for the university’s odd flip-flop: illegal sexual orientation discrimination.
Though Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Enrique J. Lavernia attributed the termination to “low overall productivity and funding,” Nguyen notes that he received grants totaling more than $1,080,000 and his department chair “strongly” endorsed his promotion.
“Professor Nguyen has demonstrated high-quality research contributions in his field, dedicated teaching and excellent service,” the department’s faculty advised university administrators in an April 2016 letter. “This important work has been published in high-quality research journals.”
According to the UC Irvine press release announcing the National Science Foundation grant, Nguyen’s computer stimulation efforts were focused on designing “smart nanomaterials—those that can change their shape and structure in response to environmental stimuli . . . These nanomaterials potentially can carry drugs or imaging agents to tumors for cancer diagnosis and treatment.”
A four-member academic personnel advisory committee in the school of engineering, called the grant “positive” news, but nonetheless unanimously recommended against tenure because of “substantial questions regarding innovation, novelty and rigor of the main thrust of the program.”
Nguyen responded in the lawsuit, stating, “Given the enormous disparity between how my work was characterized and my actual achievements, I have to wonder what motivates such statements, which seem to suggest something else other than an objective evaluation.”
He also reported that his accomplishments “fall well within the range for number of peer reviewed publications, graduated doctoral students and amount of extramural research funding awarded” in comparison with five other recently successful, non-gay applicants for tenure.
Nguyen is seeking a jury trial, damages and reinstatement at the university.
Lawyers for the school have not yet filed a reply to the lawsuit.
U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna is scheduled to preside.