In 2003, Namita Goswami was looking forward to joining the philosophy department at DePaul University. With a fresh doctorate from Emory University’s Institute for Women’s Studies, Goswami believed she was hired to diversify DePaul with her background in nontraditional philosophy, including critical race and feminist theory.
“I was young and naïve and genuinely believed that that department was everything that it claimed it was,” she said. “Little by little, I realized that things were not the way I understood them to be."
Goswami described the next seven years as a kind of professional hell – the capstone to which was being denied tenure during 2009-10, on grounds that she’s now challenging in a lawsuit.
“I was teaching exactly what I was hired to do and it was used against me,” said Goswami, a native of India who alleges gender, race, color and national original discrimination in her complaint, as well as violations of academic freedom. “What they did is classic racism, xenophobia and sexism," she said; DePaul did not "give [her] credit for a single accomplishment.”
Goswami’s not alone. During the past several years, three other women have sued DePaul over their tenure denials, citing similar discrimination claims and violations of academic freedom. Those three women, all of whom applied for and were denied tenure in 2008-9, settled with the university earlier this year.
One of those women, Melissa Bradshaw, said in an e-mail that she was unable to talk about her case due to the details of her “resolution” with the institution. But she said she was glad more attention was being paid to the problem of female tenure candidates at DePaul. She referred further questions to her attorney, Lynne Bernabei.
Bernabei, who represented Bradshaw and fellow former DePaul professors Jennifer Holtz and Penny Silvers in their joint suit, said the university “certainly has a problem with tenure insofar as it has denied tenure to extraordinarily well-qualified women who are at the top of their fields.”
Discrimination is enabled by DePaul’s tenure practices, which do not follow the faculty handbook guidelines, she said, but instead “the prejudices and biases of the University Board on Promotion and Tenure,” as well as those of individual administrators.
According to Bradshaw's complaint, she was hired as a tenure-track professor of interdisciplinary humanities at DePaul’s Barat campus in 2002, before moving on to teach women’s and gender studies at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences from 2004-10. She received strong evaluations from her department throughout her probationary period, with all nine professors voting in favor of her promotion. The College Personnel Committee also voted in favor of her tenure, 4-1, based on the three criteria for tenure outlined in the faculty handbook: teaching, scholarship and service.
Despite those endorsements, the University Board on Promotion and Tenure voted against Bradshaw's promotion, after raising questions about her scholarship. Although the college committee concluded Bradshaw had presented at numerous conferences and published numerous works of increasing value to the discipline, the university board asked “mocking” and “hostile” questions about her work and her discipline in general, according to the suit, including those about male to female student ratios in women's studies courses. One board member also asked whether it was unusual for a publication to focus on a single author -- a common practice in literary studies. And even though Bradshaw had not included her book manuscript in her tenure application, the board also faulted her for not yet having found a publisher (the book, Amy Lowell, Diva Poet, has since been published by Ashgate, to positive reviews, including in Women's Review of Books).
University President Dennis Holtschneider, DePaul's ultimate arbiter of tenure, accepted the board’s decision and denied Bradshaw the promotion.
Bradshaw, who is a lesbian, wrote a letter to Father Holtschneider alleging gender and sexual orientation discrimination and formally appealed the decision. A review board eventually found there to be “extreme and severe conflicts in the manner in which DePaul’s faculty handbook outlines the responsibilities” of the board and faulted members for not giving Bradshaw concrete reasons for their denial of tenure.
Despite the report, Father Holtschneider did not reverse his decision. Bradshaw is now a non-tenure-track professor at Loyola University in Chicago.
Holtz, now an assistant professor of adult education and program coordinator for the master’s degree in adult education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, also said she was glad attention was being paid to the case but was unable to elaborate due to her settlement.
As in Bradshaw's case, Holtz’s colleagues in the School of New Learning voted overwhelmingly (21-1) in favor of her tenure, citing her achievements in teaching, scholarship and service, before the university board voted against it. According to the complaint, the board’s decision was motivated in part by retribution for allegations of sexual harassment Holtz made against a School of New Learning colleague early in her probationary period. Father Holtschneider said that Holtz's scholarship was not strong enough to merit tenure.
Both plaintiffs allege their male colleagues up for tenure that year were not subject to the same inconsistencies in assessment, including questions about the value of co-authored publications. Bradshaw alleges the board faulted her for having co-authored a scholarly work, even though single-author, peer-reviewed publications were also included in her tenure dossier and DePaul's faculty handbook states that the value of scholarly publications should be assessed at the department level during the tenure process, not by the university board.
The third co-plaintiff, Silvers, could not be reached for comment. But the former School of Education instructor also received an overwhelming tenure endorsement by her immediate colleagues in the areas of teaching, scholarship and service. Still, the university board questioned her scholarly work, despite the faculty handbook’s stipulation that the board identify failures in candidate assessment at lower levels of the tenure process before it can make its own “application of the substantive criteria of the candidate’s scholarly or artistic area.”
Although Silvers specialized in elementary education, no one on the university board shared that background; none shared academic specialties with Bradshaw or Holtz, either.
Goswami’s story is similar, although clues that her tenure would be challenged began to surface much earlier in her probationary period (Bradshaw, Holtz and Silvers all allege they were given no warning that their tenure bids were in danger until they were denied). According to Goswami’s complaint, fellow philosophy professors criticized her for not being grounded enough in the European philosophical tradition and for being hostile toward colleagues – particularly white men.
“Every contribution I made in meetings and events that had to do with diversity and perspectives pertaining to my field was used against me as a demonstration of my lack of collegiality,” she said. According to the suit, for example, a colleague told her she made another man in the department feel like a “passé old white guy.”
By 2005, the situation had become so acute that Goswami refused to talk during department meetings for fear of reprisal. That silence was reflected in some of her performance reviews as a further lack of collegiality.
Despite intradepartmental relations, Goswami still thrived at DePaul, especially in the areas of teaching – for which she won a prestigious College of Liberal Arts and Science honor in 2007 – and service (according to all of the women’s complaints, it was commonly known at DePaul that tenure candidates must excel at two of the three tenure criteria while being adequate in a third to be promoted). Merit reviews up to 2007-8 refer to Goswami’s scholarship record as “very good” or similar.
But Goswami noticed a marked difference in her assessments starting in 2008-9, when Peg Birmingham became interim chair of the department (the two had previously butted heads, including in 2005 when Birmingham sided with a white student when that student and another black student were both accused of plagiarism in Goswami’s class, according to the complaint). The complaint alleges repeated attempts by Birmingham to downplay Goswami’s performance, including crediting her for publishing one article that year, instead of three, and removing previous performance assessments from her personnel file during a spring 2009 formal review (in which all participants were hand-picked by Birmingham, in violation of the faculty handbook).
Citing a lack of knowledge of European philosophy and other faults, that ad hoc personnel committee determined Goswami to be ineligible to apply for tenure during the 2009-10 academic year. The philosophy department also voted to terminate Goswami. (That same day, other members of the department submitted a minority report in support of their colleague, saying her knowledge of nontraditional philosophy helped better the department. A collegewide personnel committee also submitted statements on her behalf to the University Board of Tenure and Promotion, rejecting the department’s majority decision).
Goswami (by means outlined in the faculty handbook) still applied for tenure in 2009-10. The university board denied her promotion without letting her view a copy of their report – another violation of the faculty handbook, according to the complaint. At her request, a university appeals board reviewed her case and found that Goswami’s academic freedom had been violated in that she did not feel free to teach nontraditional philosophy. Nevertheless, Father Holtschneider initially denied her appeal. Goswami said she was later offered an additional opportunity to appeal, but considered the format to be outside that outlined in the faculty handbook. Whereas a handbook-standard second appeals process would have resembled that of a tenured professor being dismissed for cause, with the burden of proof falling on the university, Goswami said the ad hoc "hearing" Father Holtschneider proposed would have served as just another attempt to "stack the deck against me."
Following his decision, the American Association of University Professors twice informed the president that his actions violated its Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure as well as DePaul’s own faculty handbook. It also noted that there were a number of other reported problems with tenure decisions at DePaul, which have disproportionately and adversely affected minority and female candidates (according to the lawsuit, 20 years of tenure decision data show that minority applicants were approximately twice as likely to be denied tenure as their white colleagues; Father Holtschneider also has never reversed a university tenure board decision regarding a woman, while he has for at least one man).
Goswami’s lawsuit also alleges systematic race discrimination during the 2009-10 tenure process in particular, when DePaul “rejected a disproportionate number of minority applicants in favor of white tenure applicants with similar or inferior qualifications.” According to university data, every applicant denied tenure that year was a minority, while minorities represented only 35 percent of the applicant pool. None of the 22 white applicants were denied tenure. (Quinetta Shelby, a black chemistry professor, also was denied tenure in 2009-10, but successfully appealed the decision and achieved tenure, according to American Association of University Professors in Illinois. She did not respond to a request for comment.)
Birmingham referred questions to a university spokeswoman. The spokeswoman, in reference to questions about all four cases, said it was the university’s policy not to comment on personnel matters. But in reference to questions about discrimination in the tenure process, she pointed to DePaul’s commitment to diversity, outlined in its Vision 2018 plan for future growth and progress. Goal 4 of the plan reads: “We share in the commitment to protect and strengthen our university environment to allow every member of our community to contribute to and learn from each other.”
Members of DePaul’s Faculty for Tenure Justice group did not respond to requests for comment.
Peter Kirstein, a St. Xavier University history professor and vice president of the American Association of University Professors in Illinois, studied Goswami’s case and determined the university had erred in denying her tenure.
“She was brought in to break the cycle of continental philosophy, so she did her job,” Kirstein said, calling the case one of the more overtly discriminatory he’d seen. “She taught and she received honors for her teaching and she published, but they said, ‘Your research is not in continental philosophy, and one of your best publications was co-written with your husband and you have a thinking problem,’ ” he added, quoting language included in the suit.
Kirstein said he’d recommended an overhaul of DePaul’s tenure process upon his review, and noted that women and minorities aren’t the only faculty members who have raised issues of academic freedom with the university.
DePaul's tenure dispute record is unique among Illinois institutions, Kirstein said, who could name only single cases raised at other colleges and universities in recent years.
Although Goswami’s lawsuit, filed in September, marks the beginning of long and likely difficult process, she said she’s seeking personal, professional and financial vindication for what she’s gone through over the last decade. And although she likes teaching at Indiana State University, where she is now, there are aspects of the job at DePaul that she misses, such as working with graduate students. In her suit, she requests reinstatement to the rank of associate professor with tenure at DePaul or compensation for lost wages if she is not reinstated; compensation for wages and benefits already lost and emotional distress; and punitive damages, among other items.
“I want to be whole again,” she said.