UB removes beloved Dr. B
Students are angry, confused and worried about grades
UB has removed popular African American studies adjunct professor Kushal K. Bhardwaj, known to students as “Dr. B,” from the classroom amid a swirl of rumors about inappropriate conduct toward a student and accusations of misbehavior.
The misconduct allegedly has to do with the combative way Bhardwaj spoke to a female student and how he made retaliatory comments toward students who complained about him, The Spectrum has learned from students and other UB sources.
Bhardwaj is a three-time winner of the “students’ choice” Milton Plesur Excellence in Teaching Award and was ranked as the top black studies professor for 2017 by the website Rate My Professors. He was known for his in-your-face style of teaching and focus on contemporary issues.
Bhardwaj abruptly canceled his African American Studies 100 class on Oct. 10, causing the rumors to begin.
Bhardwaj declined to comment for this story. UB officials have not explained why Bhardwaj was removed, and the university would only issue a written statement saying it “takes seriously all allegations of inappropriate conduct by UB employees” in response to questions about the former professor.
On Oct. 16, UB administrators held a closed-door disciplinary hearing on Bhardwaj in the Human Resources Divisional/Development Building near Crofts Hall. After the meeting, Bhardwaj walked out to a crowd of about 25 loyal students and, reading from a legal pad, told them the charges against him were dismissed and unsubstantiated. The students cheered and he hugged each student but then he reminded the crowd that it would be up to the university to decide his fate.
But he never returned to teaching his class.
The day after the hearing, Oct. 17, the 97 students in the class learned they had a new professor, Y.G. Lulat, an associate professor in transnational studies, who has taught the class in the past.
“Part of the frustration for me is taking over the class in the middle of the semester...I’m going to assume the administration knows what it’s doing,” Lulat said. “If you ask the students, they are threatening to withdraw from the class en masse.”
Students said the class is now fundamentally different from the one they signed up for. Lulat, they said, is changing the syllabus. Instead of just holding “open discussion,” he’s giving weekly verbal quizzes and is much stricter about grades than Bhardwaj was, according to Matthew Bosque, a senior English major. Students no longer feel prepared for the class.
Bosque, who is in the class and was writing his honors thesis with Bhardwaj, was forced to find a new thesis adviser and feels it has disrupted his progress.
“I don’t really know what’s going on and it’s extremely frustrating to not know,” Bosque said.
Some students fear for their grades and want to be able to resign the course without an “R” appearing on their transcripts. Others no longer want to take the class without Bhardwaj.
“I felt it was very unfair, how [the school] is dealing with it,” Matthew Bosque said. “We weren’t given any information, but we are just expected to deal with it. It really is kind of out of nowhere. The Transnational Studies department is making us suck it up.”
Lulat, too, said he is “baffled” over what happened and that no one told him why he was taking over the class. He agreed to add a fourth class to his teaching load and feels prepared to teach the material, but he said he’s been “left in the dark” about the circumstances surrounding Bhardwaj’s departure and is trying to do his best.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “What administration told me was, ‘There was a problem with this class, and we want you to take it over.’ I asked them, ‘Why?’ – why I am taking it over. They said, ‘Well, you have taught this class years ago, therefore you should take it over.’ And I said, ‘OK.’...Then I discovered there was a lot of disagreement as to what had happened. And so I’m still waiting to find out.”
He said the switch makes as little sense to him as it does to the students and when he started, he “assumed” the students would know what happened and be willing to accept him as the professor. He said he had no idea “students were very opposed to this.”
Bhardwaj’s classes had names like “Hip Hop & Social Issues,” “Race and Gender Ethics in Sports” and “Cross Cultural Topics” and usually relied on open-ended class discussions, rather than on tests for grades. Some students said he was “an easy A,” but others insisted his classes offered what they crave – discussions about controversial issues that touch their lives.
For instance, Bosque said that after the Las Vegas shooting in early October, Bhardwaj spent an hour in class discussing what had happened. At first, Bosque was unsure why, but he said it turned out to be a meaningful conversation.
“Dr. B brings a lot of energy to the class,” Bosque said. “He’s very eccentric, loud and exciting, screaming all the time and bringing a lot of interesting things to class like contemporary information, which is really nice because sometimes it’s hard to connect a lot of information.”
He also credited Bhardwaj with helping him become more confident and less worried about how others see him. The professor did that, Bosque said, by opening up about his own experiences as a “mixed Indian-African.”
But, Bosque admitted, Bhardwaj’s style was not for everyone.
“There has never been a time where he has necessarily offended me personally, but he definitely takes a little getting used to,” Bosque said. “He definitely is not very censored. He curses a lot and he really will hit very contemporary issues.”
Bhardwaj’s classes have traditionally filled quickly with more than 100 students. He regularly has a coterie of student admirers who stay long hours after his classes end to hear him talk and have him help them with their problems. He also openly invites his students to bring family, alumni and friends to his classes, and many students insist his classes are “life-changing.”
That’s why students were worried when Bhardwaj abruptly canceled class on Oct. 10 without giving a reason. Previously, when Bhardwaj was unable to attend the class, he had his TA teach the class.
Then, the rumors started.
The disciplinary action centers on Bhardwaj’s interactions with a female student in the class who criticized Bhardwaj on his Facebook page, The Spectrum has learned from current and former students. The group, called “Dr. B’s Jedi Page,” includes hundreds of students he has taught and is used to share content relatable to his course. Bhardwaj removed the student from the Facebook group, students say.
Students say the female student attended the Oct. 16 hearing.
Bhardwaj did not take Spectrum questions after the hearing, but did say, “My only statement is the critical work that I do with students is so important, especially in today’s age. In a post-Charlottesville world where Black Lives Matter gets labeled a terrorist organization, the idea that a learning community such as mine can exist, let alone thrive, is tremendously gratifying."
A university spokesman declined comment, instead issuing a written statement in response to questions about Bhardwaj.
“While the university does not comment on individual personnel matters, it takes seriously all allegations of inappropriate conduct by UB employees, particularly when they are entrusted with the instruction, grading, and supervision of students,” the statement reads. “Employees are prohibited from engaging in behavior that violates UB policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation against people who bring forward concerns. When an allegation is received, the university conducts a full investigation under procedures which protect the rights of accused employees, while fulfilling our obligation to maintain an appropriate, non-discriminatory and safe environment.”
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robin Schulze sent a personal email to all students in the class on Oct. 20.
“We have received and heard your concerns regarding the absence of Dr. Kush Bhardwaj from AAS 100,” Schulze wrote. “Please know that we are unable to comment on confidential personnel matters. The university is following all necessary protocols, and the appropriate offices are involved….While a change in instructor mid-semester is not ideal, it could not be avoided.”
Bhardwaj is a UB alum and has been teaching at UB since 1998, according to his LinkedIn profile. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy and American studies, according to his LinkedIn page, but the Department of Transnational Studies declined to confirm Bhardwaj’s credentials. He also served as an academic adviser to athletes from 2011 to 2016.
In May, Bhardwaj took a job as assistant director of admissions at Medaille College. A Medaille spokesperson said the college is not aware of what’s going on with Bhardwaj at UB and declined to comment.
Transnational Studies Chair Cecil Foster, Director of Issues Management and Stakeholder Communications Katherine McKenna, Public Affairs and Internal Communications Specialist Michael Andrei, Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Elaine Cusker, Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence Teresa Miller and Associate Vice President for Media Relations and Stakeholder Communications John Della Contrada all declined to comment for this story.
Nicole Druckman, a junior speech and hearing sciences major, is taking the class to complete a university requirement and is stressed from the switch in professors. She said the university is “just listening to one person who complained” and ignoring “a lot of people” who “are really upset about what’s happening.”
“I took the class to complete a requirement,” Druckman said. “And I feel completely screwed over, because one, my teacher switched halfway through the year, and two, I didn’t even have a chance to adjust.”
Bhardwaj was a speaker at the Oct. 26 TEDxBuffalo conference, where he spoke about the importance of African American Studies in society. He did not mention his position at UB during the talk. Afterward, he spoke with a Spectrum reporter and boasted about his class.
“I teach a class that lasts three hours [once a week] and students stay two hours after a three hour class,” Bhardwaj said.
Druckman said roughly 20 students would stay after each class to talk with Bhardwaj and that some students routinely stayed until after 1 a.m. She said Bhardwaj “was the only teacher that genuinely cares about every single one of his students.”
“Dr. B really cared about his students and he wanted them to do well," Druckman said. “And I feel like he sees himself as a mentor for really all of his students. It’s just a shame they would [remove] him because he really was a genuine person and a good teacher.”
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said Bhardwaj was fired. He was removed from the classroom and will remain employed until the end of the semester on an “alternate work assignment,” according to Tara Singer-Blumberg, labor relations specialist for United University Professions.
Hannah Stein is editor in chief and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Crowley contributed reporting.