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Six female American University professors denied tenure, accuse provost of discrimination

Allegations have resulted in lawsuits, formal complaints

 Six female American University professors denied tenure, accuse provost of discrimination

Scott Bass, pictured in May 2017, will step down as provost in June. Six female professors have accused him of discrimination after being denied tenure. 

When former AU professor Jennifer Diascro had a child in 2004 and again in 2006, she delayed her career goal of earning tenure by two years. She did so with the encouragement of her dean. She submitted her tenure application in November 2009, having received positive evaluations from her dean in 2005.

Then, something went wrong.

Her department, dean and Provost Scott Bass denied her tenure, citing that she hadn’t produced enough peer-reviewed work.

“Not only had the dean done a 180 after I had children and exercised the delay of clock option, but there was evidence that my denial was part of a pattern by the department and the school in discriminating against female faculty in promotion decisions,” Diascro told The Eagle via email.

Over the past decade, at least six female professors have accused Bass of discriminating against them in the tenure process. They’ve accused him of gender, age and racial discrimination. Some of those allegations resulted in lawsuits and others in formal complaints.

Still, other women never reported their concerns about Bass and a tenure process they felt was built for them to fail. Many of these women are connected in one way or another, whether it be through their lawyers, departments or a common story. Now, with Bass set to leave his position in June, they’re sharing their common stories.

How the tenure process works

According to the University’s faculty manual, most professors seeking tenure will do so through a standard six-year track. Professors may also receive appointments that include tenure or they can receive credit for prior service at AU or another university toward tenure at AU.

Faculty who are hired on a pre-tenure track must receive annual, written reviews. These reviews center on three main standards: teaching, scholarship and service, according to the faculty manual. Faculty hired on a standard six-year track apply for tenure in the sixth year of their process. They are reviewed by a number of professionals both inside and outside the University.

Each school has a different set of requirements regarding tenure, which can be found here.

Mary Kuntz, an employment discrimination specialist at Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, P.C., described tenure discrimination cases as difficult to prove. However, she said that discrimination can often be proven when the tenure process deviates from outlined procedure.

“The complication comes from the fact that the courts have made it very clear that they don’t like to get involved in determinations about the standards required for tenure,” Kuntz, referring to rules about research that can be included in tenure lawsuits, said. “A judge is not going to substitute his knowledge for the knowledge of the tenure committee that made that decision.“

Kelly Alexander, a spokesperson for the University, told The Eagle via email that the University follows anti-discrimination principles “as a matter of policy and practice.” Illegal discrimination is “never a factor,” Alexander said. A request for comment from the provost’s office for this story was referred to Alexander. 

“Since he became provost in 2008, Bass has granted tenure to more than 90 percent of all those who have applied for it, including a great many women, a substantial number of applicants over 40, 50 and 60, and many individuals from diverse backgrounds,” Alexander said. “In those rare cases in which the Provost has decided to deny tenure, his decisions have been for lawful, non-discriminatory reasons.”

The University, through spokesperson Mark Story, also said there was “absolutely no connection between any pending complaints against Provost Bass” and his planned departure.

“We are grateful to Provost Bass for enhancing so many facets of our academic community, including scholarship, curriculum, and faculty, staff and student life,” Story told The Eagle in an email.

Bass said he prefers younger faculty, former professor says

Stephanie Newbold taught public administration in the School of Public Affairs from 2009 to 2013.

The University recruited her for a tenure-line position in 2009, Newbold told The Eagle. She applied for tenure and promotion in September 2012. She received “glowing internal and external evaluations in SPA,” she wrote in a declaration submitted in the case of Loubna Skalli-Hanna, another professor denied tenure by the University. Newbold did not provide copies of the evaluations she referenced to The Eagle after a reporter requested them multiple times.

However, she was denied tenure in 2013. She wrote in her court statement that she believes the denial was gender-based. Newbold also said career academics can be biased against those who have worked in the professional world before entering the academy.

While teaching at the University, Newbold became friends with Maria Ivancin, a professor in the School of Communication. Newbold told Ivancin about a faculty reception she attended honoring former SPA dean Barbara Romzek. The reception took place at the provost’s home in Baltimore County, Maryland. There, Newbold said Bass expressed a preference for younger faculty.

“He had a very strong preference for tenuring younger people because he felt that younger people, in comparison to older faculty, would be able to carry out his vision for the University in a much more responsible and comprehensive way,” Newbold told The Eagle by phone.

Newbold, who was 34 when she was denied tenure, said she did not release her court statement until November 13, 2017 because she was under consideration for tenure when she attended the reception.

“I know from a lot of people at AU that there is great fear of retaliation and retribution if people speak out against the provost,” Newbold said. “There is a lot of fear and concern that if voices are directed in a critical way against his decision-making that it could make their jobs a lot more difficult and a lot more trying.”

Ivancin’s lawsuit alleging age discrimination has been settled

Just before the University denied Newbold tenure, Ivancin faced a similar fate in SOC. In May 2012, Ivancin was denied tenure after a decade of teaching at the University. Nearly a year later, Ivancin filed a lawsuit against the University for breach of contract and age discrimination, The Eagle previously reported


Maria Ivancin, pictured in 2013, sued the University for breach of contract and age discrimination after being denied tenure. Her case has since been settled. 

SARAH JACQUES/THE EAGLE


Ivancin appealed her denial to the Committee on Faculty Grievances, as did professors Skalli-Hanna and Diascro. Bass denied Ivancin’s tenure application because she lacked evidence of her impact on her field, according to a report filed by the Committee on Faculty Grievances. Bass also cited a shortage of research published in top-tier venues.

Ivancin sued the University, arguing that Bass evaluated her candidacy under the wrong lens. Instead of assessing her on a pre-determined professional track, he applied standards for a scholarly track, which has different research requirements, Invancin alleged. A scholarly track requires peer-reviewed work published in top-tier journals, while a professional track only required that faculty showcase the impact of their work on the field, such as through conferences, according to the SOC tenure guidelines when Ivancin applied for tenure.

As she was 57-years-old at the time of her tenure denial, Ivancin also accused Bass of age discrimination in her lawsuit.

The report filed by the Committee on Faculty Grievances did not find Bass at fault for wrongful tenure discrimination, but rather advised the School of Communication and the provost to revisit and clarify the tenure guidelines, The Eagle previously reported.

Ivancin’s lawsuit against AU has since been settled, Story, a University spokesperson, told The Eagle in December.

“The resolution of this dispute is in no way an acknowledgement of fault or liability on the part of either American University or Maria Ivancin,” Story said via email.

Ivancin did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email. She referred The Eagle to her lawyer.

Brown alleges racial, gender discrimination after denial

A few months after the University settled its lawsuit with Ivancin, SOC professor Carolyn Brown was denied tenure after being hired as an assistant professor on a tenure track for the 2009-2010 academic year. Brown applied for tenure and promotion in October 2016 and received positive evaluations throughout her process, including a recommendation from SOC Dean Jeff Rutenbeck. However, she learned from Bass on March 10, 2017 that she was denied tenure and promotion.

In his letter to Brown, Bass wrote that she didn’t receive tenure due to unsatisfactory student evaluations. He specifically cited three semesters -- spring 2013, fall 2013 and spring 2015 -- as times when Brown’s scores were below SOC’s standards. Bass stated that her failure to show consistent improvement since her tenure review in 2012 were grounds for denial and dismissal.

In his letter, Bass wrote that her teaching evaluation scores, at times, were “among the lowest scores ever submitted in a tenure file under my review over the past eight years.”

Brown appealed the decision to the Committee on Faculty Grievances in June 2017, stating that gender and racial discrimination influenced Bass’s decision. Brown identifies as Latina. She also said he failed to follow tenure requirements listed in the faculty manual, specifically the use of student evaluations, to decide her case. 


Carolyn Brown, pictured in 2017, appealed her tenure denial last summer. She has since taken a job at the University of North Texas as she awaits a decision on her appeal. 

TAAMEEN MOHAMMAD/THE EAGLE


In an interview with The Eagle, SOC professor John Watson, one of Brown’s recommenders for tenure, said he had never seen someone denied tenure on the basis of student evaluations in the nearly 20 years he’s worked at the University.

“He’s using a tool to decide my entire career, which has been proven in many academic studies to be unreliable especially in regards to having racial bias,” Brown told The Eagle by phone on Jan. 31. She took a job as a senior lecturer at the University of North Texas after leaving AU.

In July 2017, 16 professors from SIS, CAS and SOC wrote a letter to University President Sylvia Burwell denouncing the provost’s decision and asking her to reconsider Brown’s tenure denial.

“In our collective years working at R-1, Ivy League and research-oriented institutions like AU, we have not seen a tenure denial case that hinged on the standard deviation of numerical teaching evaluation scores,” they wrote in their letter. “This case illustrates that AU is not living up to its supposed commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice.”

Brown’s case now sits with Burwell, who will make the final decision on whether or not to award tenure to Brown.

Skalli-Hanna’s lawsuit, alleging discrimination, still being decided

Loubna Skalli-Hanna, a former assistant professor in the School of International Service, was hired by the University in 2003. She accepted a tenure-line appointment in 2008. In September 2013, she submitted her tenure application and was denied by Bass in April 2014. Her full-time employment with AU ended in May 2015. Now, she’s suing the University for breach of contract and unlawful discrimination.

According to a court order, Bass denied Skalli-Hanna tenure because she failed to complete a book and her articles published during her time at AU “demonstrated a low likelihood that she would be a productive scholar in the future.”

However, Skalli-Hanna told The Eagle she received positive evaluations and was recommended for tenure at every point in her tenure process. Her file moved to the provost’s office for consideration.

“That’s where he shocked everybody by turning it down,” Skalli-Hanna told The Eagle.

This pushed her to appeal the decision to the Committee on Faculty Grievances in July 2014. Skalli-Hanna was 51 at the time her application for tenure was submitted. Skalli-Hanna told The Eagle that she was not warned that she might not receive tenure in any of her pre-tenure reviews prior to her denial.

The Committee on Faculty Grievances investigated her claim, according to the court order. The committee released a report that stated it had “serious concerns about the overall fairness of the process,” according to the court order, and that it found statistical evidence of possible age discrimination. This matched what Newbold heard from Bass at the reception at his home.

Neil Kerwin, the University’s president at the time, upheld the provost’s decision. He did not find compelling evidence of unfairness or age discrimination.

After Skalli-Hanna’s employment with the University ended in May 2015, she filed a lawsuit against the school, which is still being decided. She told The Eagle that her denial was based on rules not listed in the SIS tenure guidelines or the faculty manual. She said that Bass did not consider the interdisciplinary nature of her work.

Devin Wrigley, an associate at Bernabei & Kabat, PLLC, represents both Ivancin and Skalli-Hanna.

“We are arguing that the provost has treated younger professors more favorably than older professors,” Wrigley told The Eagle by phone. The newest development in Skalli-Hanna’s case is Newbold’s declaration to the court, where she references the reception at the provost’s home, Wrigley said.

After having children, professor denied tenure

Diascro was an assistant professor at the University from August 2002 to December 2012. She was previously a tenured professor at the University of Kentucky, according to a letter written in support of her receiving tenure. During her pre-tenure period, Diascro had two children. She delayed her tenure timeline two years at the encouragement of her dean, Diascro told The Eagle via email. Her dean was Bill LeoGrande.

Diascro receive four out of five positive external reviews as well as consistent positive evaluations from her department and dean, she said. She submitted the tenure application in November 2009.

Diascro was denied reappointment by the Department of Government, the dean of SPA and Bass. All three cited the inadequacy of her research and her lack of continued productivity in her field.

However, several of her colleagues wrote a letter of support for her tenure and promotion. They said that those who denied her tenure did not follow “uniform standards and procedures of the tenure review process.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that my family responsibilities played a role in the process,” Diascro told The Eagle in 2010.

For example, when the department convened to make a decision regarding her tenure application, there was no official record of the vote or the minutes of the meeting, the letter states. Additionally, the letter states that they did not have access to her complete personnel file, including her external reviews.

Diascro appealed the decision to the Committee on Faculty Grievances, citing gender discrimination. The committee opened an investigation into Diascro’s case. They recommended that Kerwin reconsider the evaluation of her scholarly contributions. There were inconsistencies in the evaluation of her work before and after she took parental leave, the committee wrote in its report.

Kerwin denied this request, stating he found no evidence of gender bias, dismissal of Diascro’s pre-AU work or wrongful implementation of procedures. He denied her appeal and upheld the decisions to deny her tenure.

Professor’s lawsuit alleging gender discrimination remains open

Caren Goldberg was previously tenured at George Washington University before she was hired by AU as an assistant professor in the Kogod School of Business in 2006. She applied for tenure in the fall of 2012 and was denied in May 2013, according to a motion asking the court to dismiss the professor’s claims of gender-based discrimination.

Goldberg claims she was denied tenure because of AU’s lack of respect for feminist research, which caused a diversion from regular tenure guidelines when evaluating her work and application for tenure. Work published in the feminist journal, “Psychology of Women Quarterly,” was not recognized as “top tier” by the University.

She was given several warnings during her six-year tenure review process in which she was advised to publish more research, according to a court order. She was also advised to improve her teaching performance. Goldberg admitted to dismissing these warnings.

The former dean of the Kogod School of Business, Richard Durand, did not recommend her for reappointment in her fifth and sixth years of tenure review, according to the motion asking the court to dismiss the professor’s claims.

Bass said Goldberg’s overall scholarship -- not her teaching or service record -- did not meet standards for tenure and promotion. This was mainly due to her “lack of publications in top-tier journals,” according to the motion. He decided not to hold Goldberg to Kogod’s minimum requirement of publication in two premier journals. Regardless of whether “Psychology of Women Quarterly” was included in the list of top journals, Goldberg’s scholarship was not satisfactory, he said.

Goldberg appealed the decision to the Committee on Faculty Grievances in June 2013. They found several tenure policy violations, according to Goldberg’s initial complaint. The violations found, however, were not listed in the complaint.

In March 2014, Kerwin upheld the provost’s decision. Goldberg filed a lawsuit against the University in 2015, which is still open. She answered questions for this article from The Eagle via email.

If you or someone you know has a story to share about discrimination at AU -- in the tenure process or otherwise -- email The Eagle at news@theeagleonline.com.

Editor’s Note: John Watson, who is mentioned in this story regarding Carolyn Brown’s tenure case, serves as The Eagle’s faculty adviser. He was not involved in the reporting, writing or editing of this piece. 

jgagnon@theeagleonline.com


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