Was a UPenn Professor Denied Tenure for Becoming a Mother?

News and views from academia.
May 1 2014 5:43 PM

Tenure or Motherhood?

Fired professor says UPenn punished her for going on leave to take care of her children.

University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex
University of Pennsylvania gateway complex

Photo courtesy Forgemind ArchiMedia/Flickr

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

After the former University of Pennsylvania assistant professor Kristen Stromberg Childers was denied tenure four years ago, she raised an eyebrow over what she read in her personnel file.

Faculty members judging her tenure case in the university’s School of Arts and Sciences called hers a “complicated case” in which it was “especially hard to judge productivity” because Childers had taken two rounds of maternity leave and family medical leave to tend to her oldest child’s medical issues.

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Childers is filing an unusual lawsuit that alleges the university discriminated against her because of her gender and child care responsibilities. She claims that those faculty comments biased the tenure process and made it seem like she was not dedicated to teaching and research.

“Penn had a lot of policies and publicity around how they wanted to make family life possible with an exciting career and one should never have to choose between these things, so I took them at their word,” Childers, a French history scholar, said in an interview.

Childers, who says she received positive teaching reviews and published a Cornell University Press book on 20th-century French families, was first denied tenure in 2008 by the Arts and Sciences faculty.

In 2010 Provost Vincent Price denied her second try at tenure after the university’s History Department and School of Arts and Sciences greenlighted her for the promotion. She was fired a month after the provost’s denial.

Childers filed a grievance over the provost’s decision, in which a hearing panel found that the faculty writings about her leave time produced an unfair bias in the tenure process, according to the complaint. The provost still upheld the denial after redacting the grievance panel’s comments that had said Childers’ family leave complicated the case.

The lawsuit states that although Childers’ teaching, research, and service qualifications were on par with those of her male counterparts who earned tenure, the university’s decision “was unlawfully based on a bias against females with child care responsibilities who took time off from work to address those responsibilities.”

The alleged discrimination is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, the complaint claims. A university spokesman declined to comment because the litigation is pending.

Childers is now demanding the university hire her back into an associate professor position and compensate for her losses since the firing. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit is a “rare” move, said Nicholas H. Wolfinger, an associate professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, who studies family leave issues in academe. “I don’t know of another case quite like this where tenure denial is explicitly due to use of family leave policies,” he said.

Wolfinger’s studies are part of the growing body of research on how hiring and promotion processes in higher education favor men. For each child a female professor has, her income drops by 1 percent, according to Wolfinger’s 2013 book, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower.

Though an increasing number of top universities boast strong family accommodation policies, faculty members sometimes do not use them out of fear “they will be stigmatized as weak,” he said.

Claire Finkelstein, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and philosophy who is chairwoman-elect of the Faculty Senate, said the college sees very few tenure grievance cases each year.

The university is also trying to increase female representation on the faculty, she said. The lawsuit also claims that another assistant professor in the History Department who had taken maternity leave was denied tenure at the same time as Childers.

Finkelstein said that while the university may not think Childers’ case was discriminatory, “I think the Provost’s Office and the President’s Office and everyone in the university is prepared to recognize the social factors that make it challenging for aspiring women to achieve at the same levels that men do when they’re facing challenges of child-rearing.”

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