The Beth Palmer Case

BETH PALMER AND THE COOL CLIMATE FOR WOMEN

In 1996 the Campus Climate Committee of Athena, the UI professional organization for women, produced its first report, which concluded that @untenured women faculty were significantly less likely than their male counterparts to (a) be granted release time to conduct research, (b) have access to research assistants, and (c) serve as major professor for graduate students.@ A second study released in 1998 reported that all twelve women interviewed would not recommend the UI as a place to work, principally because they did not feel supported by their departments.

One woman who suffered from this cool climate for women was Beth Palmer, formerly of the geology department. She was hired on a tenure track in 1990 and in 1992 she received an NSF grant for $80,000, a sizable grant for a field geologist. This grant plus four papers published in prestigious journals led to a very positive third-year review. Beth decided not to go up for tenure in the scheduled year because she wanted to strengthen her case with the publication of additional papers.

A new department chair came on board in 1995 and did something quite unprecedented: he went back and changed all of Beth=s annual reviews and recast them in a negative light. (Only Beth was subject to this arbitrary reevaluation.) The turn against Beth intensified as she was being considered for tenure and promotion in the fall of 1997. Five of the seven external reviewers strongly recommended promotion, but the chair chose to report that only two did so. Instead of praising Beth for receiving the NSF grant, she was criticized for not applying for an extension. (Beth=s answer was that she finished the work of the grant and wished to go on to other research.) Finally, when a college committee recommended promotion and tenure, the department chair intervened and demanded that they reverse their decision.

To no one=s surprise the university promotion committee denied Beth=s promotion, and she came to the AFT for help. We helped her hire an attorney, who then represented Beth at a hearing of the Faculty Appeals Hearing Board. The board specifically ruled that the memo from the chair objecting to the college=s positive recommendation be removed from the dossier and that Beth should be reviewed again. Two board members wrote a separate memo declaring their belief that there were significant procedure violations in Beth=s case.

Even though he admitted that the environment in Beth=s college Awas less supportive of women than a university would hope to foster,@ President Hoover denied the board=s request for another review. He chose to believe that this cool climate for women was not the reason for Beth=s negative evaluations. Hoover also ignored the procedural violations and reaffirmed the decision not to promote or to tenure.

With further legal aid from AFT, Beth filed suit in district court but lost in a summary judgment initiated by UI attorneys. Even though there was strong evidence of violation of the Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing (evidence summarized above), the judge ruled to the contrary. Amazingly enough, the judge overlooked the fact that the university attorneys admitted that inaccurate information remained in Beth=s record when the university promotion committee made its decision. On the question of gender discrimination, Beth found herself in a Catch-22: the judge ruled that if she was endeavoring to seek tenure and promotion in spite of the working conditions, then her working conditions could not have been as bad as she claimed they were.

Idaho State law provides for recovery of legal fees by any employer sued for wrongful termination under the Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing. Therefore, Beth was presented with a bill of $7,468, of which the local AFT and the state IFT has now paid $5,000. We would now like to request that UI faculty and staff contribute to a fund that will pay off the remainder of this amount. UI employees willing to do so should make a deposit in the Beth Palmer Fund at the Latah Federal Credit Union in the UI Commons. We also ask you to consider joining the AFT so that we can be even stronger for future challenges to faculty rights.

[Three faculty geology responded to this flyer, and the following is our response.]

Dear Colleagues,

At the end of last week you received a letter from three members of the geology department. These professors strongly objected to our characterization of the way Beth Palmer was treated in their department. They charge us with misrepresenting the facts and being deceitful. We have in our possession the complete record of Beth=s appeal and anyone can borrow the folder to check our interpretation. Based on those documents we would like the make the following points:

  • The geology department chair did institute a new system of evaluation and he did go back and change Beth=s previous evaluations according to his new system. (We were incorrect in stating that this reevaluation applied only to her.) The chair=s new system cast Beth=s performance is a negative light.
  • We have reread the seven peer review letters and found that Beth would have received tenure and promotion at UC Santa Barbara, Rice, Northern Arizona, New Mexico, and U. of Otago (New Zealand). A University of Wyoming professor rejected her solely on the basis of the Scientific Citation Index and another professor from New Zealand recommended a delay in consideration.
  • The department vote was two in favor, five against, four abstentions, and four not voting. The failure of over half the unit to participate in such a crucial vote is not a very good example of effective self-governance.
  • An essential part of faculty governance is the system of checks and balances provided by college and university committees and the faculty appeal system. The college promotion committee produced hard facts and figures discrediting the department=s report about the alleged decline in teaching and research. For the three faculty to reject outright the unanimous decision of this committee appears to us to be arbitrary and unwarranted.
  • The college dean decided not to recommend promotion, and anyone familiar with our procedures knows that a candidate without her dean=s support cannot hope to survive in the university committee.
  • The dean repeatedly said that he did not believe in affirmative action, which obviously placed him in violation of university policy. It is therefore not surprising that he did nothing to improve the cool climate for women in the college. For example, Beth was told that she could not wear shorts on campus at any time. Recall that President Hoover stated that this college Awas less supportive of women than a university would hope to foster.@ The faculty appeal board also recommended that the college do something about its Adistinctly chilly climate@ for women.
  • The three geologists totally misrepresent the actions of the faculty appeals board. The board censured the department chair=s actions in his response to the college committee=s decision. The committee requested that his letter be removed from the record. Contrary to the faculty=s claim, the appeal board did not deny Beth=s promotion (deciding for or against promotion was not their charge); rather, they found procedural violations serious enough to call for a new hearing. The letter from two board members simply emphasized the seriousness of these violations.
  • Disregarding Beth=s right to due process, President Hoover rejected the idea of a new hearing. We are confident that Beth would have respected the decision of a panel of unbiased geologists. Allowing for full due process would have made the expensive trial unnecessary and would have spared everyone a lot of pain and trouble.

We wish to emphasize that it is never our intent to substitute our judgment about faculty competence; rather, the AFT=s role has always been to support academic due process. We are happy that the three geologists see nothing wrong in raising funds to pay off Beth=s legal bills. We encourage those of you who believe in due process and the protection of faculty rights to make a contribution to the Beth Palmer fund today.