A Tale of Two Tenure-Reversals: Ongoing developments at Johns Hopkins vs Vanderbilt

A Tale of Two Tenure-Reversals: Ongoing developments at Johns Hopkins vs Vanderbilt

This post is by FoR Executive Director Dr. Gary McDowell.

 

March 8th was International Women’s Day 2019, during which you likely heard about numerous financial and funding disparities in academia, including but not limited to:

 

In addition, there have been a number of recent developments around sexual harassment. Sexual harassment in academia was the subject of a recent study at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, demonstrating that rates of harassment in academia in the U.S. were at levels second only to the U.S. military.

In response, there has been an increased focus on the actions taken by institutions in protecting their researchers (or lack thereof), including early career researchers who may be in particularly precarious circumstances of temporary unemployment and temporary visas.

A new non-profit, MeTooSTEM, has emerged which is sharing the stories of those who have been harassed on their site and aims to develop resources for those who have been targets of harassment.

Two recent incidents illustrate the crossroads that institutions are reaching on taking action vs continuing to defer it. One concerns the reported vote last week to revoke the tenure of a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who was found by the Dean’s Office at the Johns Hopkins School of Arts and Sciences to have committed physical assault and violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy. The other concerns the revocation of a decision to grant tenure to Dr. Beth Ann McLaughlin, an anti-harassment advocate at Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, currently under appeal.

 

Johns Hopkins

In May 2018, professor Juan Obarrio was accused of and determined by the Dean’s Office at the Johns Hopkins School of Arts and Sciences to have committed physical assault, and violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy.

Recently, the Homewood campus Academic Council (HAC) had been meeting to determining sanctions, and an organization of student activists called #JHToo organized a petition to call for the revocation of the professor’s tenure.

On March 1st, #JHtoo announced that HAC had reached the decision to revoke tenure. They state that the case now goes to the Provost, President and Board of Trustees.

It should be noted that a decision to actually get rid of an academic found to have committed harassment is relatively low; often academics found to have committed harassment resign or retire first. The academic sexual misconduct database suggests about 15% of cases have actually resulted in the academic being fired by the institution. [Edit: Please note that this is a database of cases that are public. The actual percentage may differ across all cases that are not known to the public – see “Passing the Trash“.]

 

Vanderbilt and Dr. Beth Ann McLaughlin

Dr. Beth Ann McLaughlin is an accomplished scientist who was approved for tenure by Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Executive Committee of the Executive Faculty approved her tenure in summer 2017. As discussed extensively in Meredith Wadman’s story “The Twitter Warrior” in Science, administration then intervened to compel the committee to reverse tenure approval. The basis for this was a faculty disciplinary committee hearing report – which had found in McLaughlin’s favor.

As Wadman’s story reports:

This time, it voted unanimously to deny tenure. Seven of nine members later said they did not consider the disciplinary report in their decision, according to university documents.

Dr. McLaughlin’s science has come under discussion but it does not appear credible that there could have been some change in the circumstances of McLaughlin’s past scientific achievements, that had merited approval of tenure in the first place, to explain this reversal. Apparently, neither was the disciplinary evidence, which again through due process found in McLaughlin’s favor. The conclusion that many may draw, therefore, is that McLaughlin’s work in protecting researchers from harassment, and participation as a witness in a harassment case, is what has prompted the reversal. This is a shocking imposition on academic freedom, and a disturbing signal to other faculty looking to protect trainees.

And Professor McLaughlin’s advocacy work is impressive, including but not limited to:

 

 

McLaughlin’s tenure decision is currently under appeal and sitting with Vanderbilt University Chancellor Zeppos. A petition urging, “Vanderbilt: Don’t fire Prof. BethAnn McLaughlin for standing against sexual harassment” is currently at over 10,500 signatures. Participants are being urged to contact Chancellor Zeppos.

So far Vanderbilt University has issued a boiler-plate response stating how it values diversity, and is carrying out a climate survey to gather data on sexual harassment, as well as organizing a number of subcommittees. The American Association of Universities and the National Institutes of Health also have climate surveys under way at the moment, despite a report summarizing a wealth of data being issued already by the National Academies, pointing to a tendency in academia to gather data rather than address the issues already supported by evidence with actual action, and funds with which to take action.

 

Ongoing cases

Both of these cases are ongoing, and may change. However, at this point, there is a startling comparison to be made in institutional responses to sexual harassment and particularly the role of tenure. One institution appears to be revoking tenure to protect its researchers. Another appears to be revoking tenure for the very faculty championing the safety of its researchers.

Early career researchers who value their safety, and their academic freedom, should watch closely and take note.

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