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Will Me Too Activism Cost Professor Her Job?

A Vanderbilt faculty member, considered a hero to many women in science, finds her once promising tenure bid has stalled.

February 22, 2019
 
BethAnn McLaughlin

BethAnn McLaughlin is a hero to many women in academe, especially those in science. She founded a nonprofit called #MeTooSTEM to draw attention to the harassment of women in academic science, much by prominent men who are considered leaders of their fields.

She has spoken out against “harassholes” and has named names in public speeches, asking why some scientists are still showered with honors for their science despite the way they have treated women. She has urged members of the National Academy of Sciences to resign unless all harassers are removed from its ranks.

McLaughlin also had notable success -- where others have complained for years and achieved nothing -- in taking on Rate My Professors last year. McLaughlin, assistant professor of neurology and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University, tweeted at the website that ranks faculty members, "Life is hard enough for female professors. Your 'chili pepper' rating of our 'hotness' is obnoxious and utterly irrelevant to our teaching. Please remove it because #TimesUP and you need to do better." After a social media campaign took off to support her request, Rate My Professors announced it would take down the dubious "hotness" rating.

As McLaughlin's activism has grown, some of it has struck close to home. A faculty committee that had endorsed her tenure bid reversed itself, Science reported. The action came amid investigations of McLaughlin for allegedly posting anonymous derogatory comments about colleagues, and the complaint reportedly came from a professor against whom McLaughlin had spoken in a sexual harassment investigation. While Vanderbilt never found her guilty of violating any rules, the tenure process went from moving to not moving. She is in danger of being out of a job at the end of this month.

McLaughlin, who has denied wrongdoing, makes no secret of her views on Me Too, and does tweet regularly about these issues. But she does so under her own name.

A tweet from last year that she has kept at the top of her page is, to many, a sadly accurate prediction of the struggles she would face. The tweet is from an email to her from Anita Hill, a professor at Brandeis University best known for accusing Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas of harassment. "I am deeply appreciative of your willingness to use your voice … to make a real difference. The impact on you and your career are not to be underestimated. I know that you've taken great risks to hold the national academies and individuals who abuse their positions accountable. In my own case, the challenges were considerable, but knowing that I did the right thing in the end outweigh[ed] the negatives … I am confident that your colleagues will see you as the hero you are for standing up for what's right."

As word of the tenure difficulties facing McLaughlin has spread, support for her has grown. Thousands have signed a petition calling on Vanderbilt to reverse itself. The petition notes that the faculty committee originally backed McLaughlin (who has an active lab) and changed its mind only after she became involved in allegations against a colleague.

"The tenure process is the means by which a professor's contributions to the academic community recognize the scholarship, teaching and service to their peers," the petition says. "When administrators pressure faculty to reverse their decision on tenure, they bring politics and fear into a process that should be objective and independent. Even the appearance of administrative interference strikes a blow against academic freedom and the expectation of scholarly independence."

Sharona E. Gordon, professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington, organized the petition. "Why do so many people support BethAnn?" she said. "If the most public face of MeTooSTEM can be fired for her support of targets of sexual harassment, none of us is safe."

As the controversy grew, Vanderbilt -- as is common in these cases -- declined to comment.

But this week it issued a statement that did not name McLaughlin but instead offered some comment on "an ongoing tenure review" at the university. The statement cited the confidential nature of tenure reviews, and said that the specifics of the case could not be discussed.

Still, Vanderbilt asserted that the publicity about the case has been incorrect.

"Recent news reports and subsequent social media conversations and posts related to an ongoing tenure review have created a grossly inaccurate picture of the culture and values of Vanderbilt University," the statement said. "We share genuine concern about the real and pervasive challenges facing women in science around the world and are working to address them here at Vanderbilt. We do not tolerate sexual discrimination and misconduct, or retaliation against those that stand up against it, and we work to foster an environment that encourages reporting and protects those who do so. Our community holds diversity, equity and inclusion as bedrock values and any suggestion otherwise is false."

The statement added that the university's tenure process is led by faculty members, and that no final decisions have been made.

"The processes to review tenure decisions and disciplinary actions are faculty-led, and the strict confidentiality we maintain around personnel matters is a covenant that was developed by our faculty and for our faculty," the statement said. "That is why we will not get into a public debate about the specific circumstances of any individual’s tenure application … To be clear, the process in the tenure review in question is ongoing and a final decision will be made based on a thorough assessment of the facts."

Via email, McLaughlin said that the reversal of the faculty committee was not faculty-led, but reflected the views of senior administrators. She noted how unusual it is for a candidate to be approved by a faculty committee, only to have that decision be revoked.

She said she was "incredibly sad" that she is on the verge of losing her position. She noted that she has raised millions of dollars to support her research, which her lab website describes as work that focuses "on how the brain responds to stress in an effort to design safe and effective therapeutics for acute and chronic injury."

At the same time, she said she was heartened by the support she is receiving from women in science. "I'm incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support from trainees and colleagues," she said. "There's a real chance to change the trajectory of inclusion and diversity and become a model for others. It's what we do as academics. We find the truth, we share it, we learn from it. We are continually improving, and all women need us to improve in this area."

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