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Harvard, Former Professor Spar in Ongoing Tenure Lawsuit

Harvard has gone to great lengths to maintain the secrecy of its tenure process in an ongoing federal civil suit filed by a former professor in March 2015, calling upon a top administrator to defend its promotion practices.

In an affidavit dated Aug. 24, 2015, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith characterized Harvard’s confidential peer review of tenure candidates as “the linchpin of the tenure process.” Smith wrote that the tenure process depends “a very significant way on candid and confidential evaluations.”

Kimberly Theidon
Former Associate Professor of Anthropology Kimberly Theidon.

Kimberly S. Theidon, a former Anthropology associate professor at Harvard and the plaintiff in the case, maintains that these confidential documents would help prove her allegations that Harvard discriminated against her when the University denied her tenure in May 2013. Theidon was granted tenure at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of International Affairs in July 2015.

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Theidon filed her suit against the University and the Harvard Corporation in March of 2015, alleging that Harvard’s decision to deny her tenure was in part retaliation for her advocacy for sexual assault prevention on campus. In particular, Theidon offered in comments on a Crimson story a defense of an anonymous sexual assault victims quoted.

Theidon’s suit argues that such alleged discrimination would violate the federal anti-sex discrimination law Title IX.

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Since filing the suit, Theidon's and Harvard’s lawyers have sparred in court over what materials the University should turn over in the case’s discovery process.

Theidon has twice since June called on the Massachusetts Federal District Court to compel Harvard to produce documents including parts of University President Drew G. Faust’s personal calendar, administrators’ internal communications about Title IX policies, and all tenure-related correspondence from a Johns Hopkins professor who reviews tenure candidates for Harvard.

The court denied Theidon’s motions both times.

“The Court denies Plaintiff’s Motion for several reasons, any one of which is sufficient on its own,” wrote U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin in his Sept. 16 order denying Theidon’s latest motion. Among other reasons, Sorokin ruled that Theidon’s requests were “substantially overbroad” and “unduly burdensome.”

Although the court denied Theidon access to these particular documents, it mandates that Harvard produce other materials by the end of December in compliance with the federal court’s regular discovery process.

Theidon declined to comment specifically on the pending litigation but wrote more generally on Tuesday about her reasons for pursuing the lawsuit.

“It is important to oppose discrimination when you see it, and to stand up to harassment whether from a peer or a professor,” Theidon wrote in an email. “I hope my lawsuit will shine a light on misconduct.”

A Harvard spokesperson did not provide comment by press time.

Harvard’s denial of Theidon’s tenure in 2013 came during a time of increased campus dialogue about and advocacy for sexual assault and harassment prevention. In 2014, undergraduates also called for improvement in Harvard’s sexual assault policies.

In spring 2015, Harvard launched a University-wide sexual conduct climate survey in association with 28 other American universities. That September, survey results revealed what Faust called a “deeply disturbing" picture of the sexual climate on campus.

—Staff writer Jonathan G. Adler can be reached at jonathan.adler@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanGAdler.

—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at melissa.rodman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

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