Angela Bryant doesn’t remember firing off an angry notice of resignation written during a mental-health crisis in November 2020. When she realized, to her horror, that she had emailed it during a manic episode of bipolar disorder, she tried to rescind it. Ohio State University said it had accepted the resignation and there was no turning back.
Now Bryant, who had been a tenured associate professor of sociology with 13 years of teaching experience at Ohio State, is fighting to regain her job. Her case is drawing national attention to the struggles faculty members with mental-health disabilities face when their illness interferes with their work — and the challenges universities face in responding.
Bryant was diagnosed in January 2020 with a severe case of bipolar disorder — bipolar I — as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, and was excused from teaching duties. She said she has recovered with therapy and medication and is eager to return to teaching. She has the backing of dozens of colleagues, who wrote a letter to administrators demanding her reinstatement.
But as in any case involving sensitive personnel matters, the university is constrained in what it can say, and insists there’s a lot her supporters don’t know. Her discrimination case was dismissed last year by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.
In September 2021, the commission found that it was “not probable” that the university had discriminated against her. While the commission said she was a qualified disabled employee, it added that neither she nor her medical providers had given the university formal medical documentation of her disability or her need for formal accommodations. As a result, it said, the university was not “officially” made aware of her disability.
Fred Gittes, a lawyer for Bryant, contested that, saying the university had received ample evidence of her mental-health condition, including a letter from her therapist and another from a well-known psychiatric hospital. The therapist wrote in December 2020 that “it is my professional opinion that Ms. Bryant’s state of mind on November 10 was incompetent to rationally evaluate the consequences of submitting a formal resignation to her employer, and the decision was made under duress of a manic episode resulting from bipolar disorder and PTSD.”
Bryant said she learned about the email she had sent from a social worker who was communicating with the university on her behalf while she was hospitalized.
“When I read the email I had sent, as a rational person who had recovered from an episode of a treatable illness, it wasn’t a letter of resignation,” Bryant said in an interview on Friday. “It was clearly a cry for help.”
The letter to the then chair of the sociology department, which contained expletives and indicated that she was resigning, effective immediately, made no sense to Bryant. “I had a good working relationship with my dean and my department,” she said. “I don’t know where that would come from.”
After learning about the letter, Bryant’s parents, who had been granted emergency guardianship over her, contacted university administrators, pleading with them to reconsider accepting the resignation.
After hearing her case, the University Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility recommended in April 2021 that Bryant be reinstated. Members of the University Senate’s Faculty Hearing Committee also criticized the university’s handling of her case.
“Over the course of our investigation, we could find no evidence of any administrator from the Ohio State University asking Dr. Bryant the simple question, ‘Are you OK?’” the statement said. “In a university that has dedicated itself to the health and well-being of students, staff, and faculty members, we find this to be an egregious failing.”
The letter described Bryant as a valuable member of the faculty who had held leadership positions, including overseeing local diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Last month the university’s provost, Melissa L. Gilliam, and president, Kristina M. Johnson, responded to the faculty members, saying they appreciated their concern for their colleague but that they couldn’t discuss private personnel issues. “As you know, personnel issues can be complex and it is difficult for you to discern the full picture of a particular situation without complete and accurate information,” the letter said.
In a prepared statement, a university spokesman, Benjamin Johnson, said Ohio Stateis “committed to supporting the health and well-being of our faculty, staff, and students. While the university takes individual privacy concerns seriously and cannot comment further on this specific case, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission has affirmed Ohio State’s handling of this sensitive employment matter.”
The statement went on to say that the university supports employees with both short- and long-term disabilities and “is fully committed to providing equal opportunities to all employees.”
Bryant isn’t convinced. “As someone who is a mental-health advocate with an MSW [master’s in social work], I’ve asked myself what I would have done if I’d received an email like that,” she said. In addition to reaching out to the sender, “I might have even called the police to do a well check.” The way she sees it, “the university viewed my mental illness as a problem — something they wanted to get rid of — rather than seeing this as a temporary crisis in a treatable illness.”
In a Facebook post, a former student, Hunter Santurello, said Bryant had played an important role in helping her remain in college when she faced her own mental-health crisis. “She deserves more than anyone else grace, patience, and understanding,” she wrote.