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Applied Physics Professor Sues Harvard, SEAS Dean, Computer Science Professor Over Tenure Denial

Associate Applied Physics professor Shmuel M. Rubinstein sued Harvard for an alleged dispute concerning his employment contract.
Associate Applied Physics professor Shmuel M. Rubinstein sued Harvard for an alleged dispute concerning his employment contract. By Mia B. Frothingham
By Brie K. Buchanan and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

Associate Applied Physics professor Shmuel M. Rubinstein sued Harvard in Middlesex County Superior Court last week, citing a dispute concerning his employment contract.

Rubinstein, who served as principal investigator in a lab conducting research on the physics of complex systems, was denied tenure at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in May 2019. He filed suit on March 3 against the President and Fellows of Harvard College, a formal name for the Harvard Corporation. He also sued SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle III and Computer Science professor Krzysztof Z. Gajos.

In the complaint associated with his lawsuit, Rubinstein alleges that the decision to deny him tenure was made “unlawfully,” and was “based on false information” about student complaints about him “improperly considered in the tenure process,” rather than his academic merits.

SEAS spokesperson Paul Karoff wrote in an emailed statement that Rubinstein’s complaint is under review by the University.

“Harvard is reviewing Prof. Rubinstein’s complaint, but his central claim — that the University’s decision to deny his request for tenure was based on grounds other than merit — is false,” Karoff wrote.

Karoff added that Harvard bases tenure decisions on several factors, including research and potential to make meaningful academic contributions in the future.

“The Faculty of Arts and Sciences tenure process is based solely on the quality of a faculty member's research, teaching, and academic citizenship,” Karoff wrote. “FAS reserves its limited career-long commitments to scholars who are likely to make significant and lasting contributions to their academic disciplines. The process is clear, well defined, and available in writing to every faculty member.”

Rubinstein began his career at Harvard in 2009 as a postdoctoral fellow. According to his complaint, by the end of that fellowship, he was offered tenure-track positions at Harvard and at another institution, the Weizmann Institute of Science — a public research university in Israel — and chose to take the latter job offer.

In 2013, Rubinstein returned to Harvard as a tenure-track assistant professor in SEAS’s Physics department. In 2016, he successfully applied to be promoted from assistant professor to associate professor, according to the complaint.

The complaint states that in March 2018, just months after that promotion, Rubinstein spoke with Doyle about his “prospects for tenure,” and in May of that year, Doyle approved an early tenure review for Rubinstein.

In March 2019, the departmental committee tasked with completing the first phase voted “unanimously” in favor of promoting him to a full tenured professorship, according to the complaint.

After initially making it through the departmental review with a “unanimous” vote in favor of full professorship, his progress toward tenure came to a stop, Rubinstein alleges in his complaint.

The complaint states that Rubinstein did not ultimately receive tenure because the Committee on Appointments and Promotions — the FAS body that typically conducts the next step in the tenure process — reviewed three letters from two graduate students and a postdoc in Rubinstein’s lab, which Rubinstein charges was outside its bounds.

“Harvard allowed its Committee on Appointments and Promotions (“CAP") to consider letters from three former members of his lab that falsely denigrated Professor Rubinstein's mentorship of them,” the complaint reads. “The CAP considered and heavily weighted these letters even though it should have never had access to them, and even though there were many more positive letters that the CAP never saw.”

The complaint alleges that three members of Rubinstein’s lab — dubbed “Graduate Student #1,” “Graduate Student #2,” and “Post-Doc #1” — brought complaints against Rubinstein, some of which Doyle had previously dismissed as “without merit” or not warranting “further investigation.”

According to the lawsuit, Graduate Student #1 filed a complaint with Doyle claiming that Rubinstein fostered an “abusive environment” after spending approximately five years in Rubinstein’s lab. After Doyle conducted an investigation in 2018 and cleared Rubinstein of wrongdoing, Graduate Student #1 responded by filing a second complaint with FAS’s Committee on Professional Conduct. That complaint was dismissed, Rubinstein’s lawsuit claims.

Post-Doc #1 came forward with concerns over a professional disagreement after a dispute regarding the authorship of a paper, according to the complaint. Rubinstein alleges in the complaint that he told the student “in strong terms” that he felt they had “disrespected colleagues and collaborators at SEAS” and committed a “serious and troubling” professional error.

In 2017, Graduate Student #2 took up a position unrelated to Rubinstein’s lab and received negative feedback on their performance from a supervisor, Rubinstein’s complaint alleges. Graduate Student #2 believed Rubinstein was “spreading rumors” about them related to that negative feedback, according to the complaint.

Rubinstein claims in his lawsuit that, in May 2019, he met with Doyle, who told him that CAP had denied him tenure based on “a few negative student letters.”

Rubinstein also alleges that, after Harvard denied him tenure, Gajos “undermined” his attempt to get tenure at the Weizmann Institute of Science by spreading “false information about Professor Rubinstein’s mentoring relationship with these three students.”

In fall 2018, Rubinstein contends, the Weizmann Institute approached him about returning to the institute. The two parties “discussed a tenured position,” and by spring 2019 “were close to finalizing an agreement,” but he contends that, after Gajos spoke to the Weizmann institute’s hiring committee, the agreement fell through.

“After Harvard denied Professor Rubinstein tenure, Professor Gajos, acting within the scope of his employment at Harvard, intentionally interfered with Professor Rubinstein's ability to gain future employment by falsely informing another institution, which was in the process of making Professor Rubinstein a tenured offer. Professor Gajos falsely stated that Professor Rubinstein had been found responsible for a pattern of harassment and abuse against three former mentees.”

Gajos declined to comment Monday on the material contained in Rubinstein’s lawsuit.

He said in a December interview with The Crimson that he was contacted by a professor at the Weizmann Institute who was “deeply concerned” about allegations of harassment against Rubinstein and who asked whether any SEAS faculty would be willing to “share information.” He said that he was “familiar” with the disagreements and that he agreed to speak with the hiring committee.

Ofer Aharony, the head of the Senior Appointments and Promotions committee of the Weizmann Institute’s Faculty of Physics, declined to comment on Rubinstein’s tenure case, writing in an email that appointment proceedings at the institute are confidential.

Applied Physics department chair Eric Mazur declined to comment on the suit. He wrote in an email that his department has been expressing “growing discontent” over the University’s tenure decision.

“As Chair, I'm dealing with a growing discontent over Harvard's denial of tenure to Professor Rubinstein by a large number of faculty in my area (and beyond), who all consider Professor Rubinstein an exceptional scholar and a great colleague,” Mazur wrote.

In early November 2019, 31 senior faculty members signed a letter to Harvard administrators stating they disagree with the decision to deny Rubinstein tenure.

Rubinstein did not respond to requests for comment on his lawsuit. He is represented by Boston-based attorney Monica R. Shah, who could not be reached for comment.

—Staff writer Brie K. Buchanan can be reached at brie.buchanan@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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