DePaul University Women Denied Tenure Claim Sex Discrimination

Dr Melissa Bradshaw, one of four women denied tenure at DePaul University this past spring.

I find it interesting that Ron Grossman would write an article sympathetic to academic freedom and due process. The Chicago Tribune reporter has a record of gratuitous, anti-Semitic baiting as evidenced in his unseemly review of  the transformative and courageous monograph of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby. His review was an irresponsible and unprofessional act of ad hominems and cowardly accusations of anti-Semitism for daring to challenge the Israel Lobby and their unwarranted influence in American foreign relations. However, since these women have apparently not intruded into Mr Grossman’s nationalistic world view, they have escaped similar broadsides from his reckless and defamatory pen.

I have previously communicated with each of  these women in my capacity as an officer in the American Association of University Professors-Illinois Conference and I believe that DePaul indeed has a tenure and promotion system, as the international academic community starkly witnessed in the Norman Finkelstein case, in need of significant reform and reconstruction. This blog has and will continue to monitor events on the Vincentian campus as elements within the DePaul community seek reform, fairness and the protection of academic freedom and critical thinking throughout the campus:

By Ron Grossman Tribune reporter, November 1, 2009

While dust-ups over professors denied tenure are normally part of the ivory tower’s spring-term rhythms, this year the sit-ins and picketing at DePaul University have continued into the fall.

Students and faculty have marched in support of Melissa Bradshaw, a professor of women’s and gender studies who didn’t get tenure — higher education’s equivalent of a lifetime job guarantee.

Bradshaw is one of four faculty members who were rejected — because they are women, they say. Their attorney notes that of seven faculty members turned down for tenure this year out of 33 up for consideration, five were women (her clients plus one other who has chosen not to fight the decision).

Of 18 male professors who were candidates for tenure, 16 got it.

Friday afternoon, DePaul President Dennis Holtschneider notified each of the women by e-mail that he was denying their appeal to have their tenure decisions reversed. Two of the women, reached Friday by telephone, indicated that they intend to take DePaul to court, charging the university with gender discrimination.

Their supporters already had planned another sit-in. “We want the administration to know students aren’t happy about this, that it won’t go away,” said Chera Tribble, a senior who organized the marches and sit-in.

The university says it doesn’t condone gender discrimination. “Every faculty member seeking tenure is held to the same standards: scholarship, service and teaching,” said Denise Mattson, DePaul’s vice president for public relations.

Yet, in a report filed in September, a faculty task force found serious flaws in the way candidates for tenure are judged — leaving the door open for possible discrimination, Bradshaw’s supporters say.

Professors are initially evaluated by their departments and colleges — that is, by colleagues in the same field — but ultimately by a universitywide academic board. Under that system, the task force concluded, “the judgments and expertise of dozens of faculty are overturned by the majority of a small committee, most of whom may not have any expertise in the areas they are assessing.”

Unlike at other universities, the tenure review board at DePaul does not just defer to the judgment of a professor’s departmental colleagues. That board’s actions go to the president for a final decision.

In Bradshaw’s case, she got high marks from her own department. Recommending her for tenure, her dean wrote: “Dr. Bradshaw’s record as a teacher and educator has been exceptional.”

Others denied tenure had similarly glowing recommendations. Colleagues in the school of education wrote, as part of the tenure process, that Penny Silvers “demonstrates a strong record of teaching (and) is a consistently productive scholar.” Jennifer Holtz, whose field is online education, was praised by her dean who predicted, when she was being evaluated, that “she will contribute at the highest level for years to come.”

With those kinds of reviews, why were Holtz and the others rejected?

“In every tenure case, the final decision is one of balancing the various arguments for and against tenure,” Mattson said.

Lynne Bernabei, attorney for the four women, thinks a potential for bias is built into the system. She points to that final academic board.

“How does, say, a physics professor decide who is more deserving of tenure, someone in English or maybe engineering?” Bernabei said. “When there is no objective criteria, there’s a tendency to fall back on stereotypes.”

Bradshaw said she felt that when questioned by the tenure board. “They wanted to know how many men were in my classes,” she said. “You wouldn’t ask that of a male professor.”

Speakers at a recent campus protest suspected anti-gay feelings might be involved. Noting the university’s commitment to diversity, they asked how that could be squared with denying tenure to Bradshaw, a founder of DePaul’s minor in the Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer Studies Program — an unusual, perhaps unique, offering for a Catholic university.

When Bradshaw and her three colleagues appealed their tenure denials via the university’s internal review system, the waters were muddied further.

The women’s appeals were heard by separate faculty boards, all of which found problems in the university’s process for awarding tenure. Two of the appeals boards concluded that, since the process was flawed, the women whose cases they had heard had been denied tenure wrongfully.

Yet the other two boards ruled that their subjects’ tenure denials were legitimate, despite the system’s flaws.

“I just don’t get it,” said Bradshaw. “My colleagues’ boards said that, since the process wasn’t fair, they should get tenure. My board agreed about the system’s faults. But I don’t get tenure?”

At least one of the four professors found a bittersweet silver lining in Friday’s letter from Holtschneider.

“I’m just glad my dad didn’t live to see this,” Holtz said. “He so strongly believed in what he thought DePaul stood for.”

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