Gender Bias at SUNY-Buffalo?

Faculty members say the administration favors men over women in awarding tenure -- and point to pattern in which decisions are reversed by the president and provost.
July 6, 2009

Earning tenure is never a sure thing, but Janet Shucard thought that she had done everything right.

She and her husband joined the State University of New York at Buffalo as instructors in the neurology department in 1985. By 1998, the year she entered the tenure track, she had served as associate director of the department's division of development and behavioral neuroscience, head of the department of neurology medical psychotherapy service and assistant professor of neurology. She had published dozens of articles in prominent science journals. And she had pulled in research funding, most recently grants from the National Institutes of Health.

When her tenure review process got underway, everything seemed on track. Shucard breezed through her department, chair, school, dean and, in a unanimous 7-0 vote, the president's review board -- an advisory board of professors across disciplines, appointed by the president. But then came the decisions from the university provost, Satish Tripathi, and president, John Simpson: negative.

Among the explanations in the provost's letter sent last year, according to Shucard, was that she had not been the leading author on enough publications and her career thus far did not indicate that she would achieve full professorship in a timely manner. She decided to appeal, submitting new articles and recommendation letters. But her appeal was denied. In March, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging the university with gender and age discrimination.

Shucard, 60, said she had not met Tripathi nor Simpson before her tenure review. She said the administration has not provided valid reasons for why she was denied tenure, and pressured her to withdraw from the process altogether, a claim which university officials deny. Now, without the salary she was counting on, she continues to do research while living off money earned through clinical practice and grants.

"Whether it's discrimination or an unconscious bias, that I can't judge," she said, "but clearly it's worked against women and I would personally call it gender discrimination."

Shucard's experience is not an isolated incident at Buffalo, according to a group of professors who recently studied campus data about tenure considerations spanning 2003 to 2008. They say their analysis, released in February, shows that the provost and president have favored awarding tenure to men at a higher rate than to women.

During the five-year period, 144 non-tenured assistant professors -- 91 men and 53 women -- were considered for tenured associate professor positions. Nearly a quarter of all female candidates were not promoted, in comparison with 10 percent of all males.

Of the 50 women who gained approval from the president's review board, the provost then denied tenure to 9 (18 percent). In contrast, he denied tenure to 3 of the 76 men (4 percent) who had board approval. He also overturned the negative recommendations for 9 of the 15 men (60 percent) who had not been approved by the board, effectively granting them tenure. He did not do the same for any women. The president has never reversed the provost's decision.

In March, following the study that suggested gender bias, the university's Faculty Senate formed a Commission on Academic Excellence and Equity. Its duties include reviewing data and analyzing the success of minority constituents on campus.

As the grievance officer for the academic side of United University Professions, the SUNY faculty union, Paul Zarembka said the trends outlined in the report seemed disconcerting. Reversals of faculty decisions should be rare and carefully reasoned, he said.

"What we're basically saying that in general we see no discrimination up until you get to the provost level, then you see a major problem," he said. The group focused on non-tenured assistant professors vying for tenure because, he said, "If they don't get promoted to associate professor, they have to leave -- it's a live-or-die promotion."

Calls to Tripathi and Simpson were referred to Lucinda Finley, vice provost of faculty, who called the group's findings "very incomplete and therefore misleading." She said the 144 assistant professors in question were "only a subset" of the 235 total faculty up for tenure in 2003-8, which includes librarians and instructors hired into tenure-track positions. Overall, nearly 97 percent of males and 91 percent of females considered for tenure during that period achieved tenure, according to a statement from Tripathi. Finley did not, however, contest the numbers about assistant professors coming up for tenure.

Finley, a law professor with a background in gender-equity issues, said that while reviewing the file of every candidate considered for tenure in 2003-08, she "saw absolutely no patterns that correlated with gender or age at all." Instead, the biggest red flag was taking longer than six years to come up for tenure, excluding time taken off for child-rearing, illness or other urgent reasons. Too much time on the tenure track may signal a lack of successful research progress, Finley said. She refused to discuss individual faculty members.

Finley also said that a unanimous vote from the review board does not guarantee the provost's seal of approval. "Unless you were at the meeting to hear the discussion," she said, "you don't know whether those six positive votes were 'wow, spectacular, superstar, easy-case' yeses, or whether they were borderline marginal case -- 'I'm wavering, could go no, could go yes, but as the group-think goes, I'm going to teeter on the yes side.' "

It's true that the board's views can wobble more than its vote suggests, said Mary Bisson, a biology professor who served on the board from 1996 to 1999: "It is often the case that very persuasive speakers can move people to vote one way or the other."

However, she said, a unanimous vote is still a unanimous vote. "I don't think [the provost] should rubber stamp faculty," she said, "but when there's a unanimity among three committees, and when two other administrators have deemed that this person is worthy of tenure, for one office to overturn that is unconscionable."

In 2007, Kathleen McCormick, a then-assistant professor in exercise science, filed a claim against Buffalo on the basis of gender discrimination. Like Shucard, McCormick had under her belt research, publications, service and funding from the National Institutes of Health. She, too, cleared for tenure all the way until Tripathi and Simpson recommended against her. According to her, a letter from Tripathi cited her productivity, teaching ability and potential to reach full professorship in a timely manner, none of which seemed like valid criticisms to her.

"You're embarrassed, you're ashamed, it's horrible," said McCormick, 50, of not achieving tenure. "You feel like you're a failure, and academics are not used to being failures. We're good at school -- we've been in school forever."

Since settling with the university late last year, McCormick has headed back to the classroom to earn her master's in landscape design. She continues to do research in the campus's Center for Urban Studies, studying neighborhood development and helping design playgrounds for local elementary schools. But all she wants is her old job back.

"I don't want to see this happen to other women," she said. "It's wrong, you can't have one person deciding fates of people. It's not the way the university should work."


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