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Former Prof. Sues Over Tenure Denial

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate News Editor

Gretchen Kalonji '80, a former professor in material science and engineering who was denied tenure in 1991, is suing MIT for reinstatement as a full professor and $1 million in damages on the basis of sexual discrimination.

"Kalonji was denied tenure at MIT because she is a woman," wrote Kalonji's attorney, Michael Altman, in a complaint and jury demand filed in U.S. District Court on Jan. 14. Kalonji was denied tenure "despite the fact that she is as qualified or more qualified than men who have been tenured by her department in recent years," the complaint said.

The suit identifies MIT and Merton C. Flemings, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, as defendants. Flemings was unavailabe for comment. Dean of Engineering Joel Moses said he was not able to comment about the case because it was in court.

In June, 1991, Kalonji filed a discrimination complaint with the Massachusetts Committee Against Discrimination after she was repeatedly denied tenure by MIT. A hearing was held in December, 1993, after MCAD investigators reviewed the complaint, and Kalonji decided to sue MIT, according to Altman.

Altman expects MIT to release the discovery information within 90 days. He will then decide on witnesses and prepare for the trial. "Probably a year from now there will be a trial," Altman said.

Altman said he expected Kalonji to win the case against MIT. "Some of the leading materials scientists in the country have already stepped forward and indicated that Professor Kalonji was as qualified or more qualified" than male faculty members who were granted tenure, Altman said.

Prove history of discrimination

"Kalonji's denial of tenure is part of a long pattern and practice of discrimination against women by the department and by MIT," wrote Altman in the Jan. 14 complaint.

"The allegation is, and we will attempt to prove, that the Department of Materials Science has had a long standing practice of discrimination against women," Altman said.

"The atmosphere and the treatment of women faculty during Kalonji's seven-plus years in the department was hostile and discriminatory toward women," the complaint said.

Nicole Herbots, a former professor in the department, said that "one of the main crises about being a woman in the department was being invisible." Herbots described a "conscious attitude present in most of the faculty" that systematically excluded women and minorities.

When faculty members would go out for lunch, they were "always skipping my office," Herbots said, as an example of the type of behavior she observed. There was an "unconscious barrier" placed between the women and the men of the faculty that prevented, among other things, the passing of important information, Herbots said.

Kalonji's lawsuit also cites several examples of discriminatory behavior. "Flemings effectively diverted Kalonji's research for approximately three years from basic research that would further her path to tenure, to applied research for a company that had donated money to MIT." Additionally, the department "did not provide Kalonji with lab space and support during the early stages of her career."

For the tenure decision, "Flemings solicited comments and letters, and particularly encouraged negative comments, from people who were not listed by Professor Kalonji in her tenure application," the complaint said.

Case history

Kalonji, who received both her bachelor and doctorate degrees from MIT, was hired by MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 1982. In 1986, she was promoted to associate professor.

"In December, 1988, the department voted to recommend to the dean [former Dean of Engineering Gerald L. Wilson] against granting tenure to Kalonji, despite the fact that her qualifications were and are superior to those of other comparable males in the department," the complaint said.

"In April of 1989, I filed a grievance with MIT's Dean of Engineering after my department voted not to recommend me for tenure," Kalonji said in the MCAD complaint. For the next two years, Wilson and two committees he appointed considered whether Kalonji had been treated unfairly by her department in the tenure decision.

According to the lawsuit, the first committee concluded that the tenure decision had been "unacceptably unfair." The committee also found that the departmental environment is "less supportive of women" than men and "tends to disfavor the career development of women."

A second committee, however, recommended to Wilson that Kalonji not be awarded tenure. The second committee "applied a higher and different standard to Kalonji than had been applied to comparable males," the lawsuit said, and it "relied upon information discriminatorily gathered by the department."

Wilson informed Kalonji on Jan. 15, 1991, that she would not be granted tenure. Kalonji subsequently asked President Charles M. Vest to review the decision, and on June 11, 1991, was informed by Provost Mark S. Wrighton that MIT would not further review her tenure denial.

Kalonji left MIT in August 1990 and is currently a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.