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Noble tenure case will go to trial

By Mauricio Rom'an

David F. Noble's tenure suit against MIT will go to trial on a date yet to be determined, Middlesex Court Judge Robert Hallisey decided last week. Hallisey's decision came as a setback for MIT, which had asked him to make a summary judgment on the suit, which has been going on for four years.

Noble and the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, which is funding his suit, considered the decision a "tremendous breakthrough." The decision sets a precedent in Massachusetts because it implies that "academic institutions have to enact and follow their own policies and procedures in their tenure processes," NCUPI Director Leonard Minsky said.

Noble, a former associate professor in the Science, Technology, and Society program, filed a $1.5 million lawsuit in September 1986, charging MIT on nine different counts based on his tenure denial, which he claims was made on political, not academic grounds.

Noble is now a professor at Drexel University.

Judge reveals tenure process

In his 31-page memorandum, Hallisey revealed elements of Noble's tenure hearing which had previously been closed to the public.

According to Hallisey's report, Noble in 1985 received a unanimous vote in support of his candidacy for tenure from the Tenure Review Committee. However, at the next stage of his tenure process (the second out of five), the nine tenured members of the STS program refused to recommend Noble for further review, by a vote of five to four. The professors who voted against Noble included Loren R. Graham, Kenneth Keniston, Kenneth R. Manning, Leo Marx and Michael J. Piore. The professors who voted in favor of continuing his tenure review were Louis L. Bucciarelli, Merritt Roe Smith, Leon Trilling and Charles Weiner.

According to the report, Noble raised four issues "which could allow a jury to conclude that the tenure review process was substantively and procedurally improper." These are:

O+ Among Noble's evaluators was included Professor Francis J. Reintjes, who had been criticized in Noble's work and hence had a personal involvement in the work to be evaluated.

O+ Professor Nathan Rosenberg, who had submitted a negative assessment of Noble's work during his 1981 evaluation for promotion to associate professor, was pursued with several telephone calls and a letter asking him to send an evaluation for Noble's tenure process. By contrast, Professor Carroll Pursell, then of the University of California at Santa Barbara, has testified that, although MIT claims to have contacted him, by letter and telephone, to write a reference in the Noble matter, he has no record of any such contact. He says he would have supported Noble's candidacy for tenure with "highest praise."

O+ Former STS Director Carl Kaysen claims in his affidavit that the Tenure Review Committee and the faculty vote should occur sequentially, rather than simultaneously, as was the case in Noble's tenure review process. By the time the TRC had announced its vote, two out of three STS faculty meetings to discuss his candidacy had already taken place.

O+ Kaysen urged in the tenure case that journalistic writing "be considered whenever judgments of scholarly achievements are being made." Smith, who chaired Noble's 1981 promotion committee, had instead explicitly separated out the "journalistic" work from the scholarly work.

Noble to appeal part of decision

In the report, Hallisey evaluated Noble's nine counts against MIT and dismissed eight of them. He allowed the count asserting a breach of contract by MIT. Noble plans to appeal two of the dismissed counts. One count states that MIT coerced his right of freedom of speech, which would be a violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act. And the other alleges defamation against Reintjes resulting from the negative evaluation of Noble's scholarly work.

Hallisey dismissed the MCRA count both because Noble has made no allegation of "physical confrontation accompanied by a threat of harm," and because Noble has made no showing that the votes against him "were caused by threats, intimidation, or coercion by the administration."

In dismissing this count, Hallisey interpreted the MCRA's provision for coercion too narrowly, Minsky believes. "There are forms of coercion other than physical coercion," he said. Hallisey is trying to avoid triggering the reversal of the Redgrave case, which asserts that the freedom of expression of some institutions can be expressed in denying someone else the freedom of speech, Minsky said. "Universities should not be free to censor faculty's freedom of opinion," he added.

If Noble wins the appeal for this count, the case will have broader implications, Minsky stated. "It will help us in other cases in the state, and it will serve as a guideline for other states," he added. Having this count in the trial will also increase the damages that MIT would pay should the case be won, Noble said.

The Reintjes count was dismissed by Hallisey because his negative reference is an "expression of opinion" and not a defamation. The letter was addressed to the faculty committee reviewing Noble's case and was held under strict confidence, Hallisey notes in his memorandum.

Noble disagreed with Hallisey's decision. "Reintjes lied and stated facts rather than opinions, and I want retribution," Noble said.

Noble felt confident the appeals on the two counts will be resolved in his favor. Furthermore, "the judge made it obvious that it is going to be a public, jury trial," he said. MIT was very preoccupied to keep the details of the case secret, he added.

The trial date will be sometime in the summer, Noble estimated.