A California appeals court last week upheld a jury’s earlier verdict that San Francisco State University retaliated against a professor in denying her tenure after she complained about the climate for minority women.
The First District Court of Appeal ruled, 3 to 0, that the university owes Rashmi Gupta, professor of social work at San Francisco State, $378,000 in damages and $587,000 for attorneys’ fees and court costs.
The case is significant because professors don't often sue over tenure denials, even when they think they've been wronged. And even when they do sue, courts typically defer to colleges because tenure cases tend to be so complex. But Gupta's evidence of retaliation by one administrator in particular, supported by witness testimony, is compelling. The case also turns -- to a surprising degree, given that so many experts say they shouldn't be used in high-stakes personnel decisions -- on student evaluations of teaching.
Teaching Troubles -- at First
According to court records, Gupta, who is from India, was hired on to San Francisco State’s tenure track in 2006. She received lower-than-average student evaluations of teaching effectiveness during her first three semesters. A second-year departmental review reads, “Dr. Gupta’s lower [evaluation] scores may be attributed, in part, to the standards and expectations she sets for students. She gives students substantial assignments and demands results … One must commend her for holding firmly to the principles and standards she establishes for all courses, even if students complain about the rigors she presents.”
The same review praises Gupta for being “a valued contributing member of the social work faculty,” who is “actively engaged in research, scholarship, and publication.” It is also describes her as jumping in to service, despite her newness on campus.
In her third year, according to court records, Gupta adjusted her teaching style and received positive reviews from her three faculty peer evaluators. Her student ratings also began to improve.
In late 2009, Gupta and several other women of color in the School of Social Work wrote a letter to Sue Roster, the provost, to request a meeting about what they called abuses of “power and authority, excessive micromanagement, bullying and the creation of a hostile work environment.”
At the eventual meeting, Gupta and her colleagues told several administrators -- including Don Taylor, then the dean of the College of Health and Social Sciences -- that they were most concerned about the director of the School of Social Work at the time, Rita Takahashi. The professors also expressed general concerns about the climate for people of color on campus.
The university says it is considering its legal options going forward. Taylor, who is now an emeritus faculty member, did not respond to a request for comment.
Gupta says she was instructed to work out her various concerns with Takahashi and request another meeting with Taylor if her efforts were unsuccessful.
Just weeks later, in early 2010, Gupta received a fourth-year review that was critical not just of her teaching -- which had been improving, based on her third-year review -- but also, for the first time, of her research and service. Gupta says the review cited alleged problems with her syllabi, which were later proven inaccurate. And the review also mentioned in passing her student ratings, which were by then above the department average.
Soon, Gupta sent emails to a colleague complaining that her workplace was hostile to women of color and that both Taylor and Takahashi were responsible for the environment.
At another meeting a short time later, between Taylor and the School of Social Work faculty, Taylor publicly called Gupta out. “I know about [the emails]” and “I’m going to get even with you,” he allegedly said. One professor who was at the meeting also testified that Taylor was “red in the face” and pointing at Gupta as he chided her. There are “consequences” to “those sort of conversations,” Taylor also allegedly said.
The next year, Gupta’s fifth on campus, she applied for tenure early. She was endorsed by her department’s tenure committee, the campuswide committee and the interim director of the School of Social Work. But Taylor recommended against Gupta’s early tenure, arguing that she had not demonstrated “sustained progress” in teaching, research and service, court records show.
Gupta filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission identifying Taylor by name and filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the university denied her early tenure as a result of discrimination and retaliation.
She also filed an internal grievance. The matter went to arbitration, with the arbitrator recommending that Gupta go up again for tenure the next year. Gupta then voluntarily withdrew her lawsuit.
In her sixth year, Gupta’s student ratings of teaching were good, with many praising her for her high standards, helpfulness and organization.
Her departmental tenure committee described her scholarship -- 12 peer-reviewed articles, co-written book chapters and 30 conference papers -- as “most impressive” and “reflective of a breadth of thinking, ability and talent.” The campuswide tenure committee also supported her bid, as did the interim director of the social work school, Eileen Levy.
Levy testified at the trial that Taylor was unhappy with her for her support of Gupta, and that he’d said he “didn’t like [her] attitude” and “really didn’t want people in the School of Social Work who were going to make the school look bad.” Levy also said that Taylor had previously accused her of “betraying” the university for pointing out that there were issues in the school regarding tenure and promotion of women of color.
Taylor again recommended against Gupta’s tenure, comparing her student ratings to the college average -- not the departmental average, as usual. Gupta grieved the denial and submitted additional portfolio materials for review. But Taylor still recommended against tenure, and the provost and president sided with him. Gupta was terminated in 2014.
Building Her Case
The year after Gupta was denied tenure, according to court records, another unnamed professor of social work was tenured -- despite having lower student ratings and significantly fewer publications than Gupta.
In 2015, Gupta received a right-to-sue letter from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The case went to trial, in 2017, with the jury siding against Gupta on a discrimination claim but siding with her on her retaliation claim. It awarded her $378,461 in damages, reflecting $15,600 in future noneconomic damages and $362,861 in past and future economic damages.
Gupta soon filed a motion for reinstatement and promotion to full professor. The university opposed the motion on various grounds, including the lack of an available position. The trial court denied reinstatement at the time but required San Francisco State to periodically report on available faculty jobs.
Gupta was eventually reinstated, but only after she pushed the university for further penalties when it said it had no jobs available, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Of last week's decision, Gupta’s lawyer, Aaron Gorfein, said, “We’re happy she was restored to her teaching position as an internationally respected scholar in the field of social work.”
In her opinion for the three-judge panel, Associate Justice Ioana Petrou cited comparator professor evidence. For example, she said Gupta showed that Taylor had compared her student rating scores to the collegewide average, but used the departmental average when evaluating the unnamed professor of social work who was tenured later.
Taylor also took into account the difficulty level of the unnamed professors’ courses, saying in his recommendation that three of the six classes in which students rated that professor well below the departmental mean were in “undergraduate and graduate research methods classes which are often considered to be difficult classes to teach because of preconceived fears students have about research.” Taylor did not do the same for Gupta.
Similarly, with regard to research, Taylor made accommodations for the unnamed professor that he did not make for Gupta. That professor received an extra year to publish two papers to supplement her research, for example, and Taylor even called the editors of the journals to which the professor submitted her articles press them on making an acceptance decision. Even after the extra year, the unnamed professor did not meet the departmental tenure requirement of six peer-reviewed papers. But she was still granted tenure.
In its appeal of the verdict, the university argued that Gupta should have been required to establish that her credentials were “clearly superior” to the other professor before comparator evidence was allowed.
Petrou said that it is, however, legally “well settled that for comparator evidence to be probative, and therefore admissible at trial, all that is required is for the comparator, who was treated more favorably, to be ‘similarly situated’ to the plaintiff ‘in all relevant respects.’”
San Francisco State maintains that the case "concerns an important question of law regarding whether in an education setting the standard that applies to the use of comparator evidence in discrimination claims should also apply to the use of such evidence in retaliation claims." Logically, it said in a statement, "we believe that it should and that the judgment obtained without that standard should have been reversed."
The university added that it's disappointed with the recent decision but also said it already reinstated Gupta, "at her request, once a position became available."
When Karen Stout was president of Montgomery County Community College, the Pennsylvania institution changed the way the library was designed. It was co-located with the student success center and changed to incorporate more student services.
The college saw an “immediate uptick” in use from students for services other than borrowing books, like printing and technology use, according to Stout, now president and CEO of the nonprofit Achieving the Dream. She also positioned her office in the middle of the library as a symbol that she was leading with student success in mind.
Montgomery might have been on to something.
A study released Monday by Ithaka S+R, the research arm of nonprofit Ithaka, found that students see libraries as a valuable space for services, including nonacademic services.
Through an initiative called the Community College Libraries and Academic Support for Student Success project, researchers first interviewed 37 students from seven community colleges about their largest needs and difficulties in college. They then created several "service concepts" based on the needs expressed by those students. More than 10,000 students at those seven community colleges were surveyed about which of those concepts would be most valuable to them and where they would most like to access them, as well as the largest difficulties they faced in attending college.
The government partner for the study was the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Most students reported wanting to leave college with more knowledge first and the ability to make more money second. The challenges the majority face are balancing school, work and family and having enough money to pay for basic needs like housing and food.
In response to the concerns students raised in interviews, Ithaka S+R developed a list of possible approaches community colleges might adopt to address students' needs: a single point of contact to help students navigate available services; loan technology; a dedicated person available to help find sources for course work; social workers; childcare; information about digital privacy; community advocacy; and opportunities to display students’ work.
Students were presented with the concepts and then asked which place on campus they would most like to access those services. The choices were randomized across surveys so as to avoid purposefully steering students toward libraries.
However, students most often chose the library as a potential provider for these services, according to the report.
“This project is really, in essence, about re-envisioning the role of the library,” said Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, manager of surveys and research at Ithaka S+R and a co-author of the report.
The results present an opportunity to have a conversation about the roles libraries could play in wraparound services and academic support, said Braddlee, dean of learning and technology resources at Northern Virginia Community College and a co-author of the report (Braddlee uses only one name).
Each of the seven community colleges involved in the survey has agreed to pilot at least one of the programs, Braddlee said. At Northern Virginia, he plans to implement the social worker concept.
“That doesn’t mean we’ll hire six full-time people for each campus library, or convert librarians into [masters of social work],” he said. “What it is, rather, is that we’re looking at the resources that are already available on campus.”
This includes creating displays that provide information on housing and food insecurity and referring students to resources, leveraging “the role of the library as a trusted information source.”
It also includes sending librarians to the campus's Center for Student Financial Stability to learn more about available programs, and letting social workers from the center use study rooms to meet with students confidentially when there isn’t other available space.
“A lot of these services are going to require deep collaboration so the library is not reinventing the wheel when other resources exist,” Wolff-Eisenberg said.
While the grant does not provide money to study the outcomes of the pilot projects, the researchers plan to publish a free tool kit colleges can use to conduct the survey and find out what their own student body needs and where.
Stout intends to take the concept of placing more supports, like writing centers, to Achieving the Dream’s more than 280 member institutions. She also thinks it’s important for institutions to include librarians in conversations about student success.
“Librarians are a natural bridge and hub in connecting academic affairs on our campuses with student affairs,” she said.
Braddlee thinks this report provides data to help librarians think of their roles in different ways. While some of the concepts can seem daunting at first, he emphasizes that institutions don’t have to take them literally.
“For example, on childcare, we’re not thinking that the library’s going to become a drop-off day-care center,” he said. “But rather, what we’re saying is what can we do to make the library more family friendly, more child friendly, and might that be an example to the rest of the institution to do small things as well?”