From Plaintiff to Donor

Anthropologist who brought landmark sexual discrimination suit against Brown U. in the late '70s gives $1 million to the institution she once fought.
October 23, 2008

Nearly 32 years after she filed a landmark sexual discrimination suit against Brown University, Louise Lamphere is giving the institution she once fought a $1 million gift. From the court house to the development office, she has had an unusual journey.

Lamphere, now an anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico, started her career as an assistant professor at Brown in 1968. When she was denied tenure in 1974 and its anthropology department declined to reverse the decision following a formal grievance, she filed a class action against the university. Lamphere, joined by three female colleagues from different departments, alleged that there was a pattern of discrimination in the hiring and granting of tenure to women at Brown.

In her lawsuit, she also alleged that the anthropology department did not appreciate her scholarship on women -- then a relatively new field of study -- and that the standards for tenure were stricter for her than for other candidates.

The Search for Equity: Women at Brown University, 1891-1991, which chronicles the suit and was published for the university by the University Press of New England, reveals that personnel files requested by Lamphere’s lawyers were the cause of concern on campus at the time. It mentions one circumstance in which personal letters between the anthropology chair and another professor were finally submitted with generous redactions. Believing the documents would show bias, Lamphere's lawyers attempted to charge the professors in question with contempt of court. Following this controversial search for evidence, Howard Swearer -- then the new president of Brown -- decided it was in the best interest of the institution to settle the suit out of court.

In the fall of 1977, the university agreed to the consent or “Lamphere Decree,” as it is often called. Lamphere and two of her colleagues from the suit were finally offered tenure as a result. While Brown did not admit past discrimination, the institution did commit to a number of goals and deadlines for the hiring and granting of tenure to women faculty. The decree required that each department make clear its standards for tenure evaluation and that the university conduct an annual review of how tenure decisions were being made. Additionally, when a white male was hired instead of a woman, the decree required that the department defend its decision before an affirmative action watchdog group. The ultimate goal of the decree was to achieve a proportion of female faculty members in every department that mirrored the proportion of females holding doctorates in each discipline.

The decree was officially vacated by a federal court in 1992, after multiple unsuccessful attempts by the university to prompt that action. Acknowledging that Brown had met the standards required by the decree, a committee of female faculty at the time agreed with the university’s move to vacate. Now, an internal university group monitors the advancement of female faculty to ensure fairness.

“That was the most important thing I’ve done in my life,” Lamphere said of the suit. “This business of suing universities for sexual discrimination was a new thing. I had one of the few successful cases at the time. It was a perfect storm. Also, it turns out I was a pretty good plaintiff.”

After the monumental case was settled, Lamphere took the tenured position offered to her at Brown. She taught there for a total of 18 years before she left the university in 1986 to take a professorship at the University of New Mexico, where she had served as an an associate professor from 1976 to 1979 while the Brown case was being settled. She has been at New Mexico since, but plans to retire in December.

Now, looking to the future, Lamphere has given a $1 million gift to Brown for the establishment of a visiting assistant professorship in gender studies. Acknowledging that few postdoctoral opportunities exist in the field, Lamphere said she thinks her gift can have an impact on the faculty makeup of Brown. Hiring more women, she said, is connected to actually having more women scholars at the university visibly seeking such positions. As women do more research in certain fields -- such as gender studies -- than others, Lamphere said this new professorship could help more women make an impact.

“In order that [the consent decree] doesn’t become a footnote in Brown’s history and that the university become a place for women’s studies, this seems like a good idea,” Lamphere said of her gift. “It’s about bringing women from the margins to the center.”

As Lamphere’s gift attempts to further change Brown, her past history with the institution and the legacy of the consent degree still influences the hiring of and granting of tenure to women at the university today. In 1976-77, when Lamphere brought her case against Brown, there were only 12 tenured female professors in comparison to the 334 tenured male professors. By 1991-92, when the decree was vacated, 55 more women had been tenured. Currently, women represent 28 percent of tenured faculty and 48 percent of non-tenured faculty.

Composition of Full-Time Faculty at Brown

  Tenured Non-Tenured
  Men Women Men Women
1976-7 334 12 84 40
1991-2 342 67 79 61
2008-9 352 134 108 95

Source: Brown University

Kay Warren, an anthropology and international studies professor at Brown, said she sympathized with Lamphere’s case in the late 1970s, when she was just finishing her Ph.D. and seeking her first job. In honor of Lamphere’s recent gift, the anthropology department is playing host to a conference this weekend exploring the past, present and future of gender studies. Warren said recalling Lamphere’s case provides an ideal starting point to reexamine the history of feminist scholarship. She added that the two newly funded professorships will keep its study alive and well at Brown for years to come.

“[Lamphere] gave money to an old adversary that is now a new friend,” Warren said. “It takes an original mind to see that as the right move. She felt that in this environment her wonderful and generous gift would make the greatest difference. It’s extraordinary that someone who paid such a deep personal price goes on to make a $1 million gift. We thrilled to see how we can use it. It’s a brilliant move that will bear wonderful fruit."


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