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Professor Files Charge Alleging University Violated Title IX in Denying Her Tenure

Former Associate Professor of Anthropology Kimberly Theidon.
Former Associate Professor of Anthropology Kimberly Theidon.
By Steven R. Watros, Crimson Staff Writer

Associate Anthropology professor Kimberly Theidon filed a charge against the University with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in late March, alleging that the University violated Title IX by denying her tenure in May 2013 for engaging in speech and conduct protected by federal anti-discrimination law.

Former Associate Professor of Anthropology Kimberly Theidon.
Former Associate Professor of Anthropology Kimberly Theidon. By Courtesy of Kimberly Theidon

Theidon, who holds the title of John J. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences—an endowed position—said that although she received indication that she was a strong candidate for tenure, she was ultimately denied a permanent professorship at the University. She alleges that the denial was in retaliation for her public expressions of support for sexual assault victims, as well as for complaining that she was not receiving the same pay as her male colleagues.

“This is about silencing a problem on this campus,” Theidon said in an interview Thursday. She said that she had advocated for sexual assault victims in a variety of ways, ranging from statements she made in the classroom, to private conversations with students, to comments she posted online.

Keith Healey of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination confirmed Thursday that the state administrative agency is actively investigating Theidon’s complaint to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that an act of discrimination occurred, in which case a fact-finding hearing would ultimately be convened. Unless Theidon moves the case to court or the parties resolve it by settlement, it could take over a year for the Commission to decide the issue, he added.

Theidon said that she hopes to see a conclusion in which Harvard “evaluate[s] its sexual assault prevention and response.” Theidon also said that she has appealed the University’s tenure decision. She provided excerpts of her MCAD charge to The Crimson, but declined to produce the full document. The University will have the opportunity to respond to her charges in a position statement, which has not yet been filed.

Theidon alleges that the University’s decision to deny her tenure was influenced largely by comments she posted in March 2013 in response to a Crimson article about sexual assault at Harvard. There, Theidon defended the anonymous victims of sexual assault who were quoted in The Crimson, and argued against self-identified “men’s rights” activists commenting on the story.

Theidon said Thursday that before commenting on the article, she had learned that the women interviewed for it had read others’ comments arguing against their claims of sexual assault, leaving them feeling “violated all over again.”

In another case cited in the complaint, Theidon said that she provided counsel for a female student who alleged that a male faculty member had sexually harassed her. Theidon said she told that student to speak with the University Ombudsman. Later, Theidon alleged, the student informed her that she had been approached by two faculty members who instructed her to keep Theidon out of the proceedings because her involvement would threaten the associate professor’s future at Harvard.

Theidon’s filing with the MCAD alleges that members of her department “cautioned her that her tenure would be adversely affected if she became involved in any specific complaint.” She also claims that students were told to stop speaking with her about their sexual harassment because “her tenure process hung in the balance.”

Theidon said Thursday that after she was informed of the University’s tenure decision, her “stunned” department chair, Gary Urton, told her to consult with Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Judith D. Singer.

In her meeting with Singer, Theidon said, she was told that her “political activity” had been discussed by the tenure committee, which had concluded that scholars generally refrain from such advocacy until after they receive tenure. Theidon said that though Singer did not specify, she is confident that, in the absence of other political activity, her advocacy on sexual assault was the activity in question.

Singer’s office deferred all inquiries on the matter to Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Jeff Neal. Urton declined to comment for this story.

Although Theidon said that she believed her support of sexual assault victims is at the core of the University’s decision to deny her tenure, Neal told the Crimson Thursday that her alleged advocacy for students did not have any bearing on the matter.

“[T]he University would never consider a faculty member's advocacy for students who have experienced sexual assault when making a tenure decision,” Neal wrote in an email. “Instead, tenure decisions are based on the quality of a faculty member's research, teaching and University citizenship.”

Theidon entered the tenure track as an assistant professor in 2004 and was promoted on time to the rank of associate in 2008. In line with the University’s tenure track protocols, her current appointment at Harvard will expire at the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, on June 30, she said.

Theidon said that in her time on the tenure track, she repeatedly received indication that she was in a good position to receive promotion.

“There was never a moment when I was given anything other than positive indications about where I was headed at Harvard,” she said, pointing to her inclusion in the planning process for what were to be her faculty offices and several instances of praise for her work.

Ultimately, the University President chooses whether or not to grant a professor tenure, but the decision comes after a lengthy consideration process that progresses from the department level to a discussion within an ad hoc committee overseen by the president.

Singer, who, according to Theidon, allegedly cited her political activity as a part of the committee’s reason for denying her tenure, ordinarily sits on this committee. For a candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, other committee members include the FAS dean, the Provost of the University, the candidate’s divisional dean, and five professors in the candidate’s field of study.

Although the proceedings of their meetings are strictly confidential, according to the Handbook, committee members review a dossier of candidacy materials. The dossier contains a wide array of information that outlines the candidate’s publications, research, and teaching.

Theidon specializes in Latin American Studies, with a focus on the Andean Region. According to her curriculum vitae, Theidon has edited, written, or otherwise contributed to around 70 pieces of published work since 1995. Most of this work was done prior to her teaching appointment at Harvard in 2008. Since then, she has taught a dozen courses.

One of Theidon’s books, “Entre Prójimos,” inspired the 2009 Oscar nominated film “The Milk of Sorrow.”

Theidon’s complaint was filed just days before an anonymous op-ed in The Crimson describing the aftermath of a sexual assault reignited debate about the issue at Harvard. The issue has continued to dominate the news in recent weeks, as Faust announced the creation of a task force focused on the culture surrounding sexual assault on campus and, this week, that a revised sexual assault policy had been submitted to the Department of Education for review.

—Staff writer Steven R. Watros can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SteveWatros.

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FASFAS AdministrationAnthropologyUniversityFaculty NewsNews Front FeatureSexual AssaultTitle IX