Two challenge denial of tenure at academy Women allege bias in decision

January 25, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

Patricia Burt and Shirley Fleischmann came as outsiders to the all-male engineering faculty at the U.S. Naval Academy. But it wasn't until they were up for tenure that their sex became an issue.

Even though they felt comfortable teaching at an institution where nine out of 10 students are men, both professors say they are convinced they were denied tenure solely because of their sex and have filed federal discrimination complaints.

The complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have triggered a review of the promotion rates of female employees at the academy by the Navy's Office of Civilian Personnel Management that is to start this week.

Academy officials could not comment specifically on the EEOC complaints, but said these cases are typical tenure battles, not indicative of discrimination at the academy.

In recent years, women have been promoted at a higher rate than men, said Associate Dean Michael C. Halbig. And the institution, which has been haunted by accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination, has been aggressively recruiting female candidates for non-traditional disciplines.

Nevertheless, only 60 women are on the 325-member civilian faculty. No women are tenured in engineering and weaponry, one of the three major academic divisions. Just three of the 71 civilians in that division are women.

Ms. Fleischmann, now tenured at Grand Valley State College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Ms. Burt, who is in Annapolis awaiting the outcome of her complaint, agreed to talk to a reporter in hopes of changing what they consider a biased tenure system. Their stories reflect the experience of female professors across the country, who say entrenched attitudes about engineering have hampered women's chances for success in the field.

From an early age, women are steered more toward English and history than math and science, academic researchers have found. The few women who go into engineering often choose a more lucrative career in the private sector over the ivy tower, said Dr. Banu Onaral, an electrical engineering professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Even the largest engineering schools in the nation have overwhelmingly male faculties. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., 23 women are on the engineering faculty of 368. Ten are tenured. Only one woman has tenure in the electrical engineering departments at the University of Maryland and Drexel.

"I had a very difficult time here at first," said Dr. Kawthar Zaki, who began teaching electrical engineering at College Park in 1970.

Ms. Burt and Ms. Fleischmann acknowledge that the lack of women on the academy's engineering faculty alone does not indicate discrimination. But they were the first women to come up for tenure and have documented decisions that they call sexist.

They say the civilian faculty is still adjusting to the presence of women, two decades after the first female professor was hired. Neither woman has complaints about the Navy professors, who teach side-by-side with civilians on three-year tours of duty.

When she was first hired, most of her colleagues were older men, used to the days before 1976 when the Brigade of Midshipmen was all male, said Ms. Fleischmann, 39, who began teaching mechanical engineering at the academy in 1982.

"That group just plain wasn't willing to accept a woman," she said.

During her last semester there in 1989, she was pregnant. Her colleagues "kept saying, 'Don't you just want to stay home and be a mom?' " she recounted.

Ms. Fleischmann tried for tenure three times at the academy. Each time, she claims, she was given a different reason for being refused, but never in writing.

Unlike Ms. Fleischmann, Ms. Burt was welcomed by her department and unanimously recommended for tenure. For four years, she was considered a leading candidate for promotion in the electrical engineering department.

Ms. Fleischmann left in 1989 and filed her complaint after the dean denied her and Ms. Burt tenure and offered them two-year contract extensions. But Ms. Burt liked her job too much to leave.

"Up until this whole tenure thing, I never felt any discrimination. I think I was totally accepted by the faculty. I became one of the guys," she said.

For the next two years, she tutored midshipmen on the gymnastics team, devoted hours to after-class instruction and continued her research in hopes of meeting the academy's criteria for tenure.

On her third try, Capt. Paul D. Hurst, then the division chairman, wrote to the tenure committee recommending Professor Burt. Four days later, he abruptly rescinded it after reading some negative student evaluations.

When Ms. Burt learned that her teaching had been called into question, she paid for personal training to improve her communication skills. She thought it worked when colleagues sat in on her class and gave her glowing reviews.

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