American University Deals With Six Women’s Charges of Discrimination - Higher Education
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American University Deals With Six Women’s Charges of Discrimination

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Last summer, professor Carolyn Brown accused American University (AU) provost Dr. Scott A. Bass of racial and gender discrimination after he denied her tenure on contentious grounds. Brown is among six women who have accused the provost of such discrimination, including on the basis of age, in recent years, AU’s student newspaper The Eagle reported.

All of the women have filed a formal university complaint, a lawsuit against the university or both. Brown’s tenure appeal is awaiting a final decision from AU president Dr. Sylvia Burwell. Dr. Loubna Skalli-Hanna’s lawsuit is still being decided.

Carolyn Brown

The latest report on the women’s cases comes as Bass announced that he will step down from his provost position in June.

“AU is an equal opportunity and affirmative action employer which follows anti-discrimination principles as a matter of policy and practice,” said AU director of public relations Kelly Alexander, in an email. “The university makes personnel decisions on the merits and illegal discrimination is never a factor.”

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

Bass could not be reached for comment.

Brown – formerly a professor in AU’s School of Communication (SOC) and now a senior lecturer in the Mayborn School of Journalism at University of North Texas –contends that a part of her tenure denial was due to her “activism on race issues,” she said in an interview. This included encouraging her journalism students to cover and tell stories about the various racial incidents on campus.

Her loftier grievance, however, stems from Bass’ decision to deny her tenure based on standard deviations in her teacher evaluations from students. Brown said that this is “highly unusual at a university like American University.”

“That was basically the sole reason for my tenure denial,” Brown said. “It wasn’t research or service or anything. It was just standard deviation of my teacher evaluations.”

Brown added that there have been articles and studies published in the past year “showcasing [that] evaluations are biased against women and people of color. There’s evidence for it. I think the bigger question is why is the university using this tool to decide tenure?”

Brown submitted her initial application for tenure in October 2016 with letters of support from external and internal reviewers recommending her for tenure and promotion. Internal reviewers were sure to note that broadcast journalism classes “historically” received lower student ratings regardless of who was teaching the class.

Still, Bass denied her tenure in March last year, citing “significant problems” in her teaching that revolved around Brown’s “consistency from one course and/or one term to the next.” Brown filed an official appeal with the Committee on Faculty Grievances (CFG) three months later.

After review of her tenure appeal, the CFG issued a recommendation report to President Burwell on Dec. 6, 2017. In response to that report, Brown submitted an additional memorandum with further evidence for Burwell’s consideration in overturning her tenure denial.

Brown cited a Nov. 30, 2017, workshop hosted by the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning, titled “Academic Freedom Now,” in which an SOC faculty member shared with her that Bass and Mary Clark, dean of academic affairs and senior vice provost at AU, spoke on the subject of teacher evaluations among other topics.

The dean stated that the university takes a “holistic” perspective to evaluating teaching, according to the colleague’s email.

“[Clark] literally said publicly, ‘We do not decide tenure decisions just based on teacher evaluations,’” Brown said. “They were publicly contradicting exactly what they did to me.”

When asked about the workshop and her remarks on teacher evaluations, Clark did not offer a comment.

In light of The Eagle’s reporting on other women’s allegations of discrimination by Bass, Brown added that the seeming trend of discrimination of women is “especially troubling.”

Jennifer Diascro, associate academic director at University of California, Washington Center (UCDC), said that when she first applied for tenure in November 2009 as an assistant professor at AU, Bass was relatively new.

“I’d met him a couple times, but don’t remember knowing very much about him in the context of tenure decisions,” she said by email.

During her pre-tenure review period, Diascro had a child in 2004 and another in 2006, delaying her tenure application by two years.

When her tenure decision was denied in May 2010 by Bass – based on an “inadequate record of peer-reviewed scholarship” since her appointment in 2002 – she told The Eagle, “There is no doubt in my mind that my family responsibilities played a role in the process.”

In a blog post last year, she wrote: “It’s certainly true that if I’d been less distracted, less exhausted, less involved in raising my kids, I would have written more (although, not differently). If I’d been able to sleep (even) less and work late at night, to use 15 minute increments effectively, to have convenient daycare and hire additional help, I would have written more (but not differently). But my only ‘failure’ was being a mother – their mother – and, of course, that was no failure at all. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.”

Like Brown, Diascro filed an appeal of Bass’ decision with the CFG and cited gender discrimination. She hired an attorney before deciding not to file a lawsuit against the university.

Diascro’s colleagues also wrote a collective letter of support stating that tenure decision-makers did not follow “uniform standards and procedures of the tenure review process.”

Her tenure appeal proved unsuccessful, although the CFG suggested that former AU president Dr. Neil Kerwin reevaluate her scholarship throughout her time at AU. Kerwin upheld the previous tenure denial and said that he found “no such evidence” of gender bias, reviewer’s inattention to Diascro’s pre-AU work at the University of Kentucky or indication of improper procedure in tenure review.

Diascro left the university several months before the end of her terminal year, and said that she is unaware of if there were any changes in the ways that the university handles tenure review processes after her appeal.

“In my case, the provost and the then-president denied there was any discrimination (although two university-wide committees suggested otherwise) and that was that,” Diascro said. “In the absence of any recognition of discriminatory procedures or behavior, it’s hard to conceive of procedural reforms designed to avoid discrimination in future cases.”

Of the lawsuits filed by several of the women, Maria Ivancin’s has since been settled with the university. Dr. Loubna Skalli-Hanna’s – who is also at UCDC –is set to go to trial this fall, Brown said.

Brown said she is now “in a waiting game.”

“[Burwell] has had my case since December,” she said. “I’m under the assumption, by the end of the school year, that I will have a final decision.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tiffany@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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