Should I sue?

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Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science. Send your questions to Alice’s attention via

Dear Alice,

“No matter the outcome, the confrontation will be difficult to recover from.” —Alice

Q: I am a nontenured “research” associate professor who has been supported by “soft money” for the past 20 years. I have been successful, and I am recognized by colleagues in my field. Here at my home institution, though, despite being well funded, I am constantly being challenged by my immediate faculty supervisor—the head of my unit—who poaches my funding to support other staff and will occasionally “borrow” space and give it to others. I have complained, but my supervisor seems not to take my complaints seriously. I have gone beyond my supervisor to the divisional chair and even to the dean. No one wants to interfere; they uniformly suggest that the supervisor and I work it out between ourselves.

I realize that my situation here is untenable, but when I have applied for jobs at other institutions, I have learned that references from this institution are lukewarm and even suggest that I may be uncooperative and difficult. I have tried switching to another division here without success.

I feel that there is nothing left for me to do except go the legal route. I have never been involved in a legal suit of this kind. How should I proceed? How much will it cost? What kind of outcome can I expect?

—Trampled On

Dear Trampled,

A: I am not a lawyer, but if you were a friend, I would advise that you think very hard before going the legal route. Here are some things for you to consider before you even talk to a lawyer:

  • Have you exhausted all the possible avenues to settle your dispute amicably?
  • Do you have the time and financial resources to support the process?
  • Do you have legitimate gripes, and can they be substantiated with documentation?

If after considering these questions you still are interested in going the legal route, consider what kind of outcome would be best for you: staying at the same institution or moving away with compensation for what has been done to you. Then, if you signed any contracts or agreements when you were hired or promoted, take a careful look at them and see if there are any stipulations you have not followed that they could use against you. Here is another thing that you should consider: How good is your documentation of your complaints? The litigation will have to be based on more than hearsay.

Finally, consider your resources. Do you have up to a few hundred thousand dollars or more to spend on legal representation, or do you plan to ask your lawyer uncle who needs the work?

Your uncle the lawyer probably is not a good option. You’ll need a local lawyer with plenty of experience litigating human resource issues, particularly at nonprofit institutions. They are not easy to find. Many lawyers will offer their services, but few have the experience. There are some feminist lawyers who have concentrated on such litigation. Large firms with patent lawyers may also have some individuals who are experienced. Don’t sign on unless you have met the person and are confident that they can help you.

Most cases will be settled by arbitration, led by your lawyer. You would be surprised at how many individuals quietly obtained tenure or received adequate compensation to leave. Other cases, though, have led to long, drawn-out battles (especially in the 1970s, when a few brave women put themselves on the line.)

Let me repeat: I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. It’s a personal perspective from one who has seen many such cases unfold.

No matter the outcome, the confrontation will be difficult to recover from. Expect disruption in your life even if you eventually get all that you wish.



Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

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