CHICAGO (CN) – A former Northwestern University medical school professor’s claims that she was denied tenure because she was female were properly dismissed, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Isabelle Blasdel was hired to be an assistant professor in physiology by Northwestern in 2003. Because of her expertise in electro-physiology, she was hired on the expectation that she would be doing research on Parkinson’s disease as well as, like all assistant professors, teaching students and seeking grants for outside research funding.
Blasdel’s husband had also been hired to work at the medical school.
Several months after arriving at Northwestern Blasdel was informed that she’d actually been hired as an associate professor – a higher rank than assistant professor – and would be evaluated for tenure after four years.
But, as the 7th Circuit’s 23-page opinion summarized, Blasdel’s performance was disappointing. During the four years before her tenure evaluation, Blasdel received only one grant — $900,000 spread over four years for research on drug addiction – which was not renewed. In 2006, she published her only paper since joining the Northwestern faculty.
Blasdel did not request an extension of time before being considered for tenure. She received the support of the physiology department, as well as a recommendation from Department Chair James Surmeier, who had been instrumental in her hiring. Blasdel also received supportive letters from neuroscientists outside of Northwestern.
In his letter of recommendation, Surmeier attributed Blasdel’s performance deficiencies to purely work-related problems that were not her fault. He had earlier urged the dean to extend Blasdel’s tenure clock, writing that “much of [her] promise has not been realized, largely because of the demands associated with raising two young boys.”
Blasdel was denied tenure. After unsuccessfully challenging the decision through Northwestern’s appeal system, she filed suit in federal court alleging sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.
U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras dismissed one count of Blasdel’s suit as outside of the 300-day statute of limitation, leaving only her 2007 denial of tenure claim.
On appeal, Judge Richard Posner noted the difficulties of proving discrimination in higher education.
“Although the legal standard is the same whether the plaintiff in an employment discrimination case is a salesman or a scientist, practical considerations make a challenge to the denial of tenure at the college or university level an uphill fight-notably the absence of fixed, objective criteria for tenure at that level,” he wrote.
“A disappointed candidate for tenure at a college or university may well be the best possible candidate along one dimension but not others. If A publishes an excellent academic paper every five years on average, is she better or worse than B, who publishes a good but not excellent paper on average every six months, so that at the end of five years he has published 10 papers and she only 1? Quantity and quality are (within limits) substitutes.”
Posner also noted that office politics and professional jealousy could play a role in the decision without violating Title VII.
“And finally, because so many factors influence the tenure process and because statistical inferences of discrimination are difficult to draw when there is only a small number of observations … it can be difficult to infer the presence of an invidious influence such as the sex of the candidate merely by comparing successful and unsuccessful tenure applicants,” Posner wrote.
Blasdel’s contended that Surmeier’s communications with the dean, pointing out the impact of her sex on her work performance, tainted the review of her tenure application.
Posner disagreed. “She comes close to arguing that such remarks, when made by a superior, are “illegal”-but when made to extenuate a woman scientist’s failing to realize her full promise could be complained of only by a man denied similar consideration,” he wrote.
“There is no indication that any member of the medical school’s appointments, promotion, and tenure committee, or the dean, or the provost discriminates against women scientists.”
In fact, during the seven years that the dean had been in office, the percentage of tenure track female faculty in Northwestern’s medical school increased from 20.5 to 25.4 percent. Women also obtained tenure at a higher rate than men during this time period.
Blasdel’s comparisons to other male professors granted tenure are not convincing, the court determined. The men in question had excelled in academic areas where Blasdel’s performance had been substandard such as publishing, lecturing, and obtaining grants.
“On the record compiled in the lengthy discovery conducted in this case, no reasonable jury could infer that Blasdel was denied tenure because she is a woman. Summary judgment was therefore rightly granted in favor of the university,” Posner concluded.