Supreme Court turns aside sex bias case of female professor Woman claims Vassar denied her tenure because she has children

January 21, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A woman who postponed her college teaching career to raise two children failed to get a hearing yesterday in the Supreme Court on her claim that her marriage and family were used against her by faculty peers who denied her tenure.

The case of Cynthia J. Fisher, a biology professor at Vassar College, attracted attention among women's rights groups as a major test of the legal hurdles that women -- especially married women -- must surmount to prove they were the victims of sex discrimination.

Fisher's challenge also drew notice because it involved Vassar, a premier liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., that was founded for women (men have been admitted since 1969) and that promotes itself as an institution where "women and men regard each other truly as equals."

The Supreme Court turned aside, without explanation, Fisher's appeal and those of two women in other sex bias cases. The justices' action leaves unresolved a dispute among lower courts over how hard it is to prove sex discrimination in the workplace.

Fisher had convinced lower federal courts that her failure to gain tenure could be traced to sex bias. No married woman had gained tenure in the basic sciences faculties at Vassar up to then, Fisher argued, asserting that the reasons the Vassar faculty gave for denying her tenure -- that her qualifications were inferior in scholarship, teaching ability, leadership and college service -- were false.

But an appeals court ruled that Fisher had not proved that the tenure decision was the result of intentional bias against her as a woman, married or not.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in New York City, in a 6-5 ruling in June, said it was not enough to prove that an employer treats the sexes differently and to show that the employer has no legal explanation for doing so. The worker must show that the explanation given by the employer was merely a cover-up for sex bias, the appeals court said.

Fisher did not do so, it concluded.

There were too many other possible explanations, beyond sex bias, to explain what happened to Fisher, the lower court said.

Fisher has been teaching temporarily at Vassar, without tenure, after winning the first round in her federal court challenge.

As a result of yesterday's Supreme Court order, she loses that job and will not collect the $626,872 in damages she had won earlier in a trial court.

The professor began teaching in 1974, although she had finished her doctoral studies nine years earlier. Fisher and her husband adopted two daughters, and she devoted most of her energy to raising them. She insisted that she kept up with developments in her field throughout that time.

During her case in court, Fisher offered evidence that women who were married, and especially those who had children, were passed over for tenure at Vassar, sometimes with comments from fellow faculty members that those women had families to look after.

Vassar insisted that married professors regularly achieved tenure, when the entire faculty, and not just the biology department, was taken into account.

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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