Inconsistent Reviews

July 30, 2014

The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth owes $200,000 in damages to a professor of English who says she was denied a promotion based on her race and gender, a state equal opportunity board has ruled. That’s on top of the board-ordered back pay and promotion the university has already awarded Lulu Sun.

Several top administrators, including the chancellor, also must complete anti-discrimination training, along with the university’s human resources staff, according to the board.

The recent decision by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination upholds an earlier commission finding that there was probable cause the university denied Sun promotion to full professor in 2004 and 2005 based on her Taiwanese origin and the fact that she is female. She now holds the rank of full professor because of the board's ruling.

Sun based her claim of disparate treatment on the unanimous recommendation for her promotion by a faculty panel and on inconsistencies between the way her promotion bid was handled and the way those of white men were handled.

In her 2011 decision, Betty E. Waxman, a commission hearing officer, wrote that university administrators acknowledged that Sun was excellent, very good or satisfactory in all promotion assessment areas, but nonetheless found her insufficiently outstanding to promote.

“Thus, the sole issue in dispute regarding [Sun’s] disparate treatment claim is whether [Sun] was treated differently from similarly situated, qualified persons not of her protected class,” said Waxman, who ultimately found that Sun had been unfairly assessed for promotion at the dean’s level and above.

One of the key pieces of evidence is that Sun was not allowed to include student course evaluations from the 1996 academic year in her dossier because, administrators said, they pertained to her pre-tenure days. Although Sun received strong student ratings every year through 2003, when she applied for tenure, the 1996 evaluations were particularly strong and were not part of her application for associate professor. Meanwhile, a male professor was allowed to submit “pre-application” materials in support of his promotion bid.

Similarly, the commission found that Sun had been faulted for including in her application letters from external reviewers with whom she had worked closely, such as her dissertation adviser. But other applicants were not faulted for doing so, and the practice was never previously discouraged verbally or in writing.

Michael Steinman, who was then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also expressed what the commission called “unprecedented” concerns about the breadth of the prompts in Sun’s student evaluations, even though the questions were the same across the English department. The dean also questioned the number of students who had turned in course evaluations for Sun, but another professor up for promotion was not questioned for having an even fewer, according to the 2011 decision.

Steinman also allegedly told Sun that it would be an “embarrassment” to send her dossier to the provost for review in 2003, and patted her on the back, saying, “It’s okay, Lulu.” Steinman denied that claim during the commission's investigation, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed through a spokesperson at St. Peter’s University, where he is currently interim provost. But Waxman said that email exchanges and faculty testimony suggested that such exchanges had occurred.

The hearing officer also determined that Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack, who has since retired, had “rubber-stamped” negative recommendations from the dean and Louis Esposito, the provost at the time, even though she was aware of irregularities in Sun’s review.

Sun also alleged retaliation for not withdrawing her application for promotion, including being denied travel expenses to attend a conference. Esposito allegedly said her description of the event was incomplete, even though it was the same description Sun had submitted to conference organizers.

Those factors, along with others, presented a “substantial body of evidence that the deck was stacked against [Sun] in her bid to become a full professor,” the commission found, noting that Sun would have been the first Asian woman to be appointed full professor.

Waxman ordered the university at the time to promote Sun -- an unprecedented move for the commission -- with back pay, and to pay her $200,000 in emotional damages, plus interest. The university was also fined $10,000 for violating state anti-discrimination laws, and its human resources staff, along with the college dean, the provost and the chancellor, were told to complete an anti-discrimination course. Waxman said the administrators needed to do more to promote faculty diversity, and not just at the junior professor level.

Following the 2011 decision, the university promoted Sun to full professor (although her faculty profile still says associate professor). But it appealed the damages, arguing the extent to which the situation had impacted Sun’s well-being – including how long Sun had suffered a rash she said was induced by stress (the university did not argue the existence of the rash).

In a May ruling, announced this week by the American Association of University Women, the commission found there was insufficient evidence to overturn any of Waxman’s 2011 decision. The AAUW supported Sun in her complaint through its Legal Advocacy Fund.

The university waived any right to appeal further.

Sun did not respond to a request for comment. A university spokesman declined to comment.

Mollie Lam, AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund program manager, said the fund can’t support as many tenure and promotion disputes involving alleged discrimination as she would like, and that race and gender bias remain issues in personnel decisions.

Sun’s case in particular stands out because “she was an extraordinarily qualified candidate who was widely respected in her field with very strong reviews,” yet was still denied promotion, Lam said. “That made the case all the more compelling and important to support.”

Lam said the AAUW was “very pleased with the decision, and happy that Sun’s claims have been validated, and we’re going to support other plaintiffs in their fights going forward.”

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