Professor, After Denial of Tenure, Alleges Retaliation for Speaking Out in Support of Students’ Campaign Against Campus Sexual Assault

An anthropology professor at Harvard University, Kimberly Theidon, has filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), alleging that the university unlawfully retaliated against her by denying her tenure. She has been outspoken about several issues affecting the department and the student body, particularly sexual assault and gender parity, despite alleged warnings from colleagues. Her MCAD complaint alleges that her academic credentials are equal to or stronger than those of tenured professors in the department, and that the denial of tenure was directly related to her advocacy.

Theidon joined the Harvard faculty in 2004. She is a medical anthropologist who focuses on human rights and postwar issues in Latin America. Her book, Entre Prójimos, inspired a 2009 Academy Award-nominated Peruvian film, The Milk of Sorrow. She has written, edited, or contributed to about 70 published works, mostly between 1995 and 2008. She received a teaching appointment in 2008 and has taught 12 courses since then. In addition to her academic work, Theidon has challenged what she describes as disparate treatment of men and women in her department, including gaps in pay. She claims she was discouraged from doing so by a colleague, who would go on to chair her tenure committee, who allegedly told her to be a “dutiful daughter.”

In 2013, a mostly anonymous group of Harvard students, who were the victims of sexual assault, challenged the university’s response to sexual assault on campus. Theidon spoke out in support of the students, particularly in comments to an article they wrote in the Harvard Crimson newspaper. She claims that the same colleague who told her to be a “dutiful daughter” advised her to keep quiet on this issue as well, specifically mentioning her pending tenure. The tenure committee denied her tenure in May 2013.

Theidon reportedly first complained to the university’s senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity. Although much of the tenure review process is kept strictly confidential, the administrator allegedly told Theidon that the committee expressed concern about her “political activities,” and that this was a “substantial factor” in their final decision. The committee also allegedly cited her lack of publication in certain journals as a reason, but Theidon claims that this is an arbitrary standard that is not applied consistently. The university, in a written statement issued to the media, denied any retaliation and stated that tenure decisions are based exclusively on “research, teaching and university citizenship.”

Theidon filed her complaint with MCAD in March 2014. Much like New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights, MCAD investigates alleged violations of state employment laws, including laws against discrimination and retaliation. MCAD may choose to bring a lawsuit for violations of those laws itself, or it can authorize an employee to file a lawsuit on his or her own behalf.

Theidon’s case presents a challenge in the sense that tenure decisions are often both confidential and highly subjective, making administrative or judicial review difficult. A recent MCAD decision, however, would seem to support Theidon’s claims. The commission ruled that another university discriminated and retaliated against a professor by denying her promotion to full professor and awarded her back pay and damages for emotional distress. Sun, et al v. Univ. of Mass. at Dartmouth, Nos. 05-BEM-00783, 06-BEM-02993, decision (MCAD, May 13, 2014).

If you need to speak to an employment attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group at 973-781-1204 or (646) 867-7997.

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