Between a Lawsuit and Retirement

A longtime professor wants to retire. Her university says she has to drop her pay-based gender discrimination suit first.

January 18, 2021
 
Jennifer Freyd
Jennifer Freyd

After 33 years at the University of Oregon, Jennifer Freyd, professor of psychology, would like to accept the retirement package she and some of her senior colleagues were recently offered.

Yet the university says she can’t accept the deal unless she drops her ongoing pay equity lawsuit.

The clock is ticking: the deadline for accepting the package is Feb. 5. Freyd asked the university to grant her an exception to the requirement that would-be retirees release the university from all legal claims, as she is, to her knowledge, the only eligible faculty member currently suing the university. In other words, she argued in a recent open letter to Oregon’s Board of Trustees, the release of liability requirement is uniquely injurious to her -- and “a new form of discrimination for all those with a history of discrimination.”

But Oregon hasn’t budged.

“Freyd remains a respected member of our faculty,” the university said in a statement. “The early retirement incentive program designed by the university requires all participants to sign a waiver of claims, as is typical for such retirement programs. The program has been offered to Professor Freyd on the same terms as any other faculty member.”

Freyd, who specializes in institutional betrayal and institutional courage, sued Oregon in 2017 after she found out that the university was paying her $18,000 less per year than her male colleagues closest in rank, and after failed attempts to remedy the situation internally.

Even her own department chair called the pay gap “glaring.” Yet a federal judge dismissed the case in 2019, siding with the university, which said what Freyd and her senior male colleagues make reflects what kind of work they do and retention raises secured over the years, not discrimination.

Freyd was caught off guard by the outcome and is currently appealing the decision -- not only for herself, she says, but for academics who will continue to work at Oregon and elsewhere after she eventually retires. In her letter to trustees, Freyd said that the idea she and her male colleagues do different work -- that they effectively have different jobs -- “contradicts 33 years of being explicitly compared to the other full professors in my department on the same criteria during merit review processes.”

Others have raised similar objections to such a defense. The American Association of University Professors, for instance, filed an amicus brief in Freyd's case, saying that if "different jobs" becomes precedent, it would be “virtually impossible for faculty to bring a successful prima facie case of ‘substantially equal work’ under the [federal Equal Pay Act] or ‘work of comparable character’ under the Oregon equal pay law.”

Beyond job details, research on academe's "counteroffer culture" suggests that it is biased toward men. In one example, Harvard University’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education has found men are more likely to receive a counteroffer than women even when they didn’t ask for one, and women are more likely to be denied a counteroffer to stay at their institution than men when they do ask.

The legal environment for pay equity in academe continues to evolve, even since 2019. The last few years have seen several significant legal wins for female professors and administrators who said they were paid unjustly relative to their male peers. In one case, in October, Princeton University announced that it had agreed to pay nearly $1 million to 106 female full professors, past and present, following a federal investigation into pay equity there. At least $250,000 more is being reserved for efforts to close additional gender-based pay gaps.

Freyd’s colleagues at Oregon are increasingly speaking out against what they describe as “adding insult to an already long-standing injury.”

In their own open letter to trustees, scores of psychology professors, graduate students and research assistants -- including one male professor who makes more than Freyd -- said “our colleague deserves better” after so many years of “outstanding service to the university.”

Beyond pushing for Freyd’s right to retire while pursuing her lawsuit, the colleagues also seek to bring “broader attention to gender inequity in our department, a problem that over the past seven years has only worsened.”

Salary data show that pay for female faculty members at both the full and the associate level is now “disadvantaged relative to our male colleagues,” the letter says. Freyd’s case is “not anomalous” and instead “one example of a broader problem.”

“We reject the idea that the research, teaching and service of the women in our department are consistently and systematically of lower quality, lower importance or lower value than that of the men in our department,” the colleagues wrote.

The university says its own study of pay disparities found “no evidence of systemic gender inequities in faculty compensation.”

An internal study of the psychology department from 2020, however, found “substantial differences,” “favoring males,” among associate professors and especially among full professors. Pay gaps between male and female full professors hovered around $17,000, according to the study. There were no observed gender pay differences among assistant professors, which is consistent with trends across academe. That is, pay disparities increase as one travels farther up the faculty ranks.

Freyd’s colleagues' letter to the trustees said failing to act now “could deter talented academic women from joining the UO, and also affect our ability to retain the female faculty members who are already here.” For the department's many female graduate students, it said, “the prospect of facing a similar devaluing of their contributions to science is demoralizing.”

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