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Harvard Professor Unable to Show Denial of Tenure Discriminatory

Anthropology professor Kimberly Theidon brought suit against Harvard University claiming the denial of her tenure was a result of gender discrimination and retaliation. Theidon had brought concerns about the lack of gender diversity in her department to her supervisors. She was also a strong and vocal advocate for sexual assault survivors and the need to address gender inequities and sexual misconduct on campus. When she was denied tenure, Theidon believed that her public stances and concerns were the reason for the denial.

Thiedon met her initial burden before the First Circuit Court of Appeals, establishing that she was rejected for tenure notwithstanding her qualifications and the open spots for tenure. In response, Harvard asserted that she had failed to make major contributions to anthropology and lacked enough published works. Theidon next had to establish to the court that these reasons were pretextual. In addition to some procedural errors, Theidon pointed to her complaints of sex discrimination being inserted into the tenure review process as evidence of pretext for the school’s decision. The appellate court dismissed these reasons due to a lack of evidence that the voting members of the committee were aware of her complaints prior to reaching a decision on tenure. Theidon’s female mentor had advised her to “downplay her intelligence” and not to complain. These statements were also found to be insufficient because this mentor had in fact been a “zealous advocate for Theidon’s tenure.” All of these elements could at most “cast doubt” on Harvard’s reason but did not reflect discriminatory intent.

Similarly, Theidon’s retaliation claims were dismissed. She failed to show a causal link between her complaints and advocacy with the denial of her tenure. The voting members were not aware of these activities while making their decision.