The Sentence that Cost $3 Million

Ok, the sentence to which I am referring won’t actually end up costing UT Austin $3 Million+ but that was the award returned by the jury in a gender based discrimination case on Friday. I happened to know something about the case because I was a member of our university’s “Academic Freedom Committee” (aka CCAFR) at the time that the events occurred. It was a startling case — a clearly brilliant computer scientist who had been at UT for 4.5 years after spending 2.5 years at Texas A&M had gone up for promotion “early.” In recent years, UT has insisted that all faculty serve out an entire probationary period at UT, even if they had held an assistant professorship at another institution for several years.

This policy does not serve professors, students, or even the institution in the abstract very well. I presume that it serves administrators, in that they have more time to squeeze things out of more vulnerable faculty. In this case, the candidate had not only not served the full 6 year probationary period at UT but, worse, had dared to give birth — not once but twice. While I looked at her accomplishments as the mother of two young children and felt extremely under accomplished, her dean at the time decided that she needed to stay at rank longer, perhaps so that she could teach 4 more classes — despite clear documentation that she was a good teacher and had contributed to the department’s curriculum in important ways.

Notably, her department was over 90% male, yet the problem was not at the level of the department or college but with the (female) college dean. For reasons I will never understand, the dean noted in her letter that she was recommending denial and a second try in 2 more years because the candidate had two pregnancies during her probationary period. Along with my own experiences with my former dean, his associate deans, and my chair, this sentence confirmed for me the need for all UT administrators who have anything to do with other humans to be required to undergo serious training about gender based discrimination, ADA accommodations, etc. Those modules aren’t cutting it. Neither is common sense.

I am sure that the dean was overworked, dealing with a stack of letters to write, and slipped up. Still, there was no reason to hold this candidate back. There was every reason to support her rapid ascension, especially because she would have become nearly the only tenured woman in her department at a time when UT is trying to attract and keep STEM students. It was interesting to me that I read that article this morning and then, in the afternoon, wrote recommendation letters to MIT, Stanford, and some other big name schools for a brilliant female student majoring in math and computer science. It’s difficult to keep female students when they see nobody like them on the faculty. As well, there was never any question about her research. In her discipline, so long as her teaching is not disastrous, all UT really cares about is her grants and publications. There were not weak spots there.

Ultimately, the jury award will be reviewed by a judge and can be appealed. Personally, I hope she gets as much as is possible under state law. She never should have had to deal with the stress and humiliation of being denied tenure and having to go through the whole, year long process a second time. Just the process of filing a lawsuit and seeing it through to trial creates tremendous mental anguish. Believe me, I know. The frustrating part about this case is that the internal faculty committee investigated the case and recommended that it be overturned. We were ignored by our former president, Greg Fenves. That decision is going to cost UT money but, more importantly, some seriously bad press and, in all likelihood, the eventual loss of this brilliant female professor.

UT had so many off ramps yet refused to get off the road before doing significant damage to all parties. It did not have to be this way. I have thought the same thing about my own litigation so many times. It is now the 15th anniversary of the start of the harassment that ultimately morphed into the events that are being litigated. Things are getting real and yet more off ramps are disappearing. I have been prepping for trial since the summer. The hardest part for me is seeing all the places where the problems could have been solved with no lasting damage to anyone — and, in fact, to the benefit of all parties.

I will never understand why person after person refused to take the off ramp. Certainly, some of it was bad luck and being on the wrong side of political battles that had nothing to do with me. But most of it was bad leadership, bad problem solving, and a kind of arrogance that UT is untouchable. So here we are, with trial beginning on 9 May. Before that, we will be arguing against a motion for summary judgment that was filed on Monday. I will be spending at least one more day of my leave working through the motion, tracking down documents, writing notes to guide my attorney, and try not to take things personally.

I will blog separately about that process, though not the specific details (for obvious reasons). I have to confess that I do enjoy reading that UT bent over backwards to help me and I was just a jerk who wanted to blame others for my problems. I suppose it is a good thing I don’t know what their version of obstructionism looks like? One of many good things to come out of my experience with litigation is the growth of my ability to empathize. I spent today writing lots of recommendation letters for undergraduate students, for a range of different things. A few of the requests were extremely last minute. I just agreed to do them without any comment. It hit me that this is the first year where I am back to being inundated with requests — all because I have been healthy enough to teach several of the Latin majors in multiple courses.

I have come to accept that I will never be 100%. After all, I have a chronic and progressive form of inflammatory arthritis. But the work I did during Covid to get off of steroids and deal with the awful symptoms of steroid withdrawal are finally paying off. The improvements are incremental. It’s not like healing from an acute illness or surgery. But, if I think about where I was six months ago, I can see that I am doing better in various ways. Yes, I have chronic pain and more fatigue than I should. But all the sympathetic nervous system symptoms have largely faded. My blood pressure is stable. When I had serious pneumonia, my adrenals pumped out enough cortisol to prevent an adrenal crisis. All of this is pretty darn close to my own personal miracle. I am intently focused on June: litigation should be done, one way or another (though a victory at trial would result in appeals); Covid treatments and preventative monoclonal antibodies should be much more widely available for those of us without antibodies. There is reason for hope.

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