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Judge weighs Noble evidence

By Annabelle Boyd

Middlesex Superior Court Judge Robert Hallisey has not yet made the summary judgment which will decide the future of the David F. Noble tenure suit.

MIT petitioned Hallisey in November to evaluate the evidence submitted on the Noble tenure denial to determine if MIT had acted outside of its legal boundaries. Should Hallisey decide that MIT operated within appropriate legal parameters, Noble, if he wishes to continue his struggle for tenure and compensation, will be forced into a costly appeal. However, if Hallisey finds MIT in violation of the law, the case will go to trial.

On Dec. 12, Hallisey heard oral arguments from Noble, Noble's counsel Stuart Meikeljohn, and MIT's counsel. His ruling will be based on those arguments and the numerous documents submitted by both parties.

According to Meikeljohn, Hallisey has no time restriction under which to make his decision. "He will rule on it when he sees fit," Meikeljohn said.

Meikeljohn claimed that Hallisey has all the necessary documents to determine that "Noble was mistreated" by MIT and that his rights as a professor and American citizen were "violated."

Robert Sullivan, MIT's counsel, was unavailable for comment.

Noble, now a professor at Drexel University, filed a $1.5 million lawsuit in September 1986, charging the Institute with breaching his First Amendment rights by denying him tenure on political, not academic, grounds.

Noble won full access to all tenure documents, including the names of evaluation authors, one year ago in April. He then filed a motion to lift the confidentiality restriction the court placed on those documents at the request of MIT. On Oct. 20, 1989, Hallisey ordered MIT to produce for the court all documents Noble claimed significant to his case. These comprise a large portion of the documents Hallisey is currently reviewing for his summary judgment.

Noble claims that "spending years in court to get my hands on documents I should have been allowed to see in the first place is ridiculous."

"Under AAUP [American Association of University Professors] guidelines the right of a tenure candidate to review his tenure documents is the minimal standard. The contradictions between MIT being a world class institution and acting as a prejudiced school that offers faculty no right to an explanation or an appeal are scandalous," Noble continued.

Noble had been an assistant professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society before he was denied tenure. In a statement made before the court two years ago, David Kairys, Noble's first lawyer, asserted that Noble's work has "redefined the field" by arguing that society and culture affect technology as much as technology affects society and culture.

But "Noble's scholarly work also sharply criticized MIT as an institution, and his public speech criticized MIT's ties with industry and MIT's improper use of publicly-created university resources for private commercial benefit," according to the text of Noble's original lawsuit.

Several irregularities

The tenure documents currently under Hallisey's scrutiny reveal several irregularities in MIT's process of faculty evaluation and in the obtaining of references, Noble said in a telephone interview.

A four-member interdepartmental review committee (composed of Lester C. Thurow, now dean of the Sloan School of Management; Walter Dean Burnham, formerly professor of political science; STS Professor Merritt Roe Smith; and Professor of Aeronautics Leon Trilling) prepared a list of nine people in various disciplines whose evaluations of Noble's work would be sought. All of these evaluations were positive, Noble said.

But the STS program added two evaluators to the list. While this was not improper in itself, these two evaluations were the only negative ones received, Noble said.

One of the evaluators added by the department, Professor J. Francis Reintjes, had a clear conflict of interest, Noble claimed. In his book, Forces of Production, Noble had objected to some of Reintjes' work on the social history of industrial automation, Noble said.

Despite the favorable recommendation from the first committee and the nine evaluators, the department voted 5-4 with two abstentions to deny tenure, Noble said. They based their decision on the two negative evaluations which they solicited, and they also considered Noble's non-scholarly writings as part of his scholarship, Noble added.

In his original Statement of Claims, Noble sued Reintjes for defamation of his work and scholarship. And in light of new evidence gathered from the tenure documents, Noble said he "has a strong case for a liability suit."

The National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest has largely funded Noble's suit against MIT. "We [Noble and the NCUPI] are doing this to establish due process for faculty at MIT. If we succeed, we will have made a real contribution," Noble said.

According to Meikeljohn, last week's unanimous Supreme Court ruling in a suit filed against the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School -- in which the court ruled that colleges and universities enjoy no special privilege to withhold confidential information from federal officials investigating employment discrimination against faculty members who have been denied tenure -- is a positive sign that judicial attitudes are changing.

"Society is beginning to recognize that universities are no different from any other group, and that a confidential system simply does not work as a way to insure freedom of expression and academic pursuit," Noble said.