Goswami Lawsuit Against DePaul to Proceed

Namita Goswami was denied tenure in the Department of Philosophy at DePaul University in the 2009-2010 academic year. She claimed that discrimination played a role in the decision and sued. Her story was covered a few years back in Inside Higher Ed:

“I was teaching exactly what I was hired to do and it was used against me,” said Goswami, a native of India who alleges gender, race, color and national original discrimination in her complaint, as well as violations of academic freedom. “What they did is classic racism, xenophobia and sexism,” she said; DePaul did not “give [her] credit for a single accomplishment.”…

According to Goswami’s complaint, fellow philosophy professors criticized her for not being grounded enough in the European philosophical tradition and for being hostile toward colleagues – particularly white men. “Every contribution I made in meetings and events that had to do with diversity and perspectives pertaining to my field was used against me as a demonstration of my lack of collegiality,” she said. According to the suit, for example, a colleague told her she made another man in the department feel like a “passé old white guy.”

The article details a number of procedural oddities and contested decisions.

After Goswami filed her lawsuit, DePaul asked for summary judgment on her claims. It was recently brought to my attention that the ruling on this request was made back in January, and the request was denied. The lawsuit will proceed and the matter will be settled by a jury.

The judge’s opinion makes for an interesting read. The judge, Jeffrey Cole, complains about the overwhelming amount of evidence and the frustrating ways the lawyers involved made use of it, but notes that there are enough concerns with how her tenure case was handled. These include:

Conflicting reports on Goswami’s progress towards tenure:

The performance reviews done by Professor Birmingham and Professor Lee – both were chairs of the Philosophy Department for a period during plaintiff’s time at DePaul – were starkly different. Professor Lee’s were glowing, while Professor Birmingham’s were decent, but focused on the negative. (p.9)

Complaints made about how Goswami’s attention to matters of race and gender affected her interactions with others in the department:

Collegiality (which can be is a perfectly legitimate criterion in tenure decisions…) – considered under the category of service, along with teaching and scholarship – was a real sticking point for Professor Birmingham [in her merit reviews of Goswami]…. Professor Birmingham rated plaintiff’s service as “very good,” but reported that several unnamed members of the Department complained that plaintiff had a tendency to turn every discussion into a critique of a person’s position on race, gender, or capitalism. (p.10)

The philosophy department’s attempt to alter the normal tenure and promotion process:

There is the ad hoc personnel committee Professor Birmingham put together in 2009, which voted to terminate plaintiff then and there. The opinion from more than one quarter is that this was a deviation from procedure… The Appeal Review Board called it one of “a number of procedural anomalies” that potentially had a negative impact on plaintiff’s application for tenure. (p.15)

… the Dean did not approve their ad hoc committee move to terminate plaintiff and short circuit her chance to apply for tenure, rather than allowing the application and review process to take its course. (p.17)

Aggressive departmental dynamics:

[from an email from another member of the department, Professor Krell, to Professor Birmingham, who was acting chair at the time, following the dean’s criticism of the ad hoc committee:]

“DO NOT RESIGN. Sit tight. . . . The watchdog effect must begin on all fronts NOW. Do not rule yourself out as an “interested party” in the [plaintiff] fiasco. You are not. Your [sic] are ACTING CHAIR. . . . KEEP THIS ALIVE, STAY IN POWER. Even those who resisted the vote [to terminate plaintiff] felt enormously loyal to you. . . . Fuckin’ A. You’re our LEADER. . . . maybe I should just write a 6 page “stunning” report on [plaintiff’s] research. Oh yeah, I can stun.” (p.17)

Possible suggestions of discriminatory attitudes:

[Goswani left DePaul and got a job at Indiana State, where her husband works.] Professor Birmingham wrote to… Professor Rottenberg… that plaintiff’s husband “did get her the job! So we were right: whatever she does, she needs her husband to do it. Nothing sexist about it.”…  Standing alone, these remarks prove nothing other than the declarants had a low opinion of the plaintiff and her ability to function autonomously. But, the following remark by Professor Rottenberg when the topic was raised in the 2010 email chain in the wake of the tenure vote stands on a different footing: she said that plaintiff got “a little help from her white boy husband.” in getting the job at Indiana State University. (p.18)

The judge raises some criticisms of Goswani’s arguments and evidence, as well.

The record in this case proves that academics do not exist in splendid isolation, immune to the provocations and slights to which less Olympian men and women fall prey. But the record is such – perhaps just barely – that a jury must determine what truly underlay the actions and motivations of the parties. As the discussion above and below show, some of the evidence on both sides is problematic. (p.22)

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8 years ago

“Additionally, there appear to be a number of instances where a jury could conclude that
Professor Birmingham’s reviews are arguably inaccurate or at least seemed to go out of their way
to put a negative spin on the facts. For example, in what is called the “2004 Formal Probationary
(Contract Renewal/Progress-Toward-Tenure) Review,” in the category of teaching, Professor
Birmingham noted after reading student evaluations, “[a] criticism that comes up in all her ISP 200
courses is some students find her to be a bit biased and ‘emotional.’” (Def. Ex. 99, Ex. C)
5)(emphasis supplied). Later, when plaintiff writes a letter of complaint about the accuracy of the 8
review to the Dean, we learn that of 117 students, 6 claimed she was biased and only one out of 176
said she was emotional. Professor Birmingham’s more encompassing phrasing, a jury might find in the context of
the entire record, was designed to unfairly insinuate that the criticisms were pervasive. ” Not to mention that we know what to make of students evaluations in general, and of evals of women in particular.

8 years ago

“As one reads through the record, Professor Rottenberg emerges as
the Iago to Professor Birmingham’s Othello, whispering rumors about plaintiff in her ear.” I didn’t know judges can be so humorous in their opinion!

8 years ago

Don’t we just assume “aggressive departmental dynamics” in a philosophy department? Isn’t that the baseline?

Kenny Pearce
8 years ago

Footnote 13 on page 17 of the opinion is awesome.

Vanessa Howle
Vanessa Howle
8 years ago

It doesn’t look good for the philosophy department. The emails are uncivil, at best, and the cronyism which underlies the lack of fairness and civility is obvious. I pity the members of the philosophy department. Just look at the way Professor Krell reacts – he shows his true character in his aggressive attitude and pathetic remarks. Power often does corrupt and this may well be a good case in point.