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MIT Response to Suit -- Professors and Others Comment on Wolff Case

By Sarah Y. Keightley
Associate News Editor

Attorneys for MIT filed a motion last week asking that Middlesex County Superior Court dismiss a suit brought against the Institute by Professor of Literature Cynthia G. Wolff. Wolff filed the lawsuit against MIT in early April, charging that the Institute had allowed a "hostile work environment" to continue.

In the suit, Wolff claimed that she was excluded from the Women's Studies Program because in 1981 she voted to deny tenure to Professor of Literature Ruth Perry, who was later granted tenure and currently heads the Women's Studies Program. Wolff alleged that other professors in the literature section isolated her because of her stance on other personnel decisions.

According to the suit, Wolff told the administration about personnel problems in the literature section and was later identified as the whistle-blower. The administration failed to act when she mentioned these incidents and did not protect her during the peer review process, the suit adds. Also, MIT did not take action against faculty who conducted themselves improperly, and knowingly allowed harassment to interfere with Wolff's work.

Stephen H. Oleskey, who is representing Wolff in the suit, said, "I think the complaint is pretty explicit and states the case clearly. [The motion to dismiss is] a standard action taken by a defendant who wants to attempt to get a case taken out of the judicial system at an early stage. We'll be filing a brief on our position and expect the whole matter to be argued later this spring."

Robert Sullivan, one of MIT's lawyers working on the case, said, "Everything that Professor Wolff has said about difficulties she has had with colleagues, and so forth, are not the kind of difficulties which courts look into judicially for the obvious reason that courts think universities and colleges should run themselves." Courts do not want to act as "surrogate administrators," he said.

"Wolff has not alleged any acts of discrimination," Sullivan said. "If someone is just complaining essentially that they have run into hostility or disagreements, the courts don't like to get involved."

A source in the literature section said that Wolff is confusing disagreement with harassment. The source said that Wolff blatantly disregarded expected standards of civility with her colleagues, approaching deans and other administrators rather than discussing the problems first.

The source also said that anyone who has had extended dealings with Wolff would say she is a "notoriously difficult" person.

Peter S. Donaldson, head of the literature faculty, said he did not want to comment on MIT's legal response to the case. He did say that he is concerned about characterizations of the literature section made by The New York Times and The Boston Globe in their articles about the suit. "We've been characterized as politically correct, but the curriculum we offer is one that ... has a strong traditional element to it."

Perry said, "The case has no legal merit," and emphasized the fact that the Women's Studies Program could never have excluded Wolff, since she never approached the program.

Perry said that according to Denise K. Magner, a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the suit was faxed to the press at the same time it was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court. It was filed on a Tuesday afternoon, and Magner called Perry for an interview on Wednesday. "I was stunned when [Magner] called. It was the first I had heard of it," Perry said.

"I'm pleased that the Institute sees no merit in the suit and intends a vigorous defense," said Professor of Literature David Thorburn. "There is no substance in her suit. It is a shocking smear of decent faculty members."

Thorburn added: "Her description of me as a tyrant of the politically correct is ludicrous. ... My intellectual and ideological commitments have always been recognized as democratic and pluralist."

Provost Mark S. Wrighton said he is not in a position to comment on the case. Professors of Literature David M. Halperin and Theoharis C. Theoharis both declined to comment on the suit.