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Margaret Geller: Battling Discrimination or Bureaucracy?

One morning in mid-May 1997, astronomer Margaret Geller received a letter from Jeremy Knowles, dean of Harvard University's faculty of arts and sciences, offering her a Mallinckrodt chair at Harvard--an honor traditionally reserved for outstanding tenured scholars at the university. Geller, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was euphoric, and she rushed out of her office to tell one of her graduate students the good news. But when she learned that Harvard tenure did not come with the chair, her euphoria turned to fury.

Two years later, Geller still has not accepted the chair, and she and Harvard remain locked in an increasingly acrimonious battle over her status. Geller argues that her lack of tenure is a result of ill-concealed sex discrimination, the latest attempt by Harvard to deprive a distinguished woman scientist of its powerful stamp of approval and support. But university administrators say gender has nothing to do with the matter. They argue that bureaucratic reality--which also prevents Geller's male colleagues at the Harvard-Smithsonian center from receiving tenure--is the true stumbling block, which they are working in good faith to remove.

University officials do not question her credentials. Geller, 51 years old, the second woman to receive a physics Ph.D. at Princeton, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and recipient of a coveted MacArthur fellowship, or "genius grant." Her work plotting the distribution of galaxies with John Huchra, also a Harvard-Smithsonian professor, showed that matter hugs the edges of enormous voids and has an organized rather than a random pattern. (Ironically, the initial organized pattern was dubbed the Harvard Stick Man.) "She's quite a distinguished researcher with a lot of respect in the community," says Princeton astronomer Ed Turner.

Geller was a budding junior faculty member at Harvard during the early 1980s. Then in 1986, before she came up for tenure, she resigned and moved to the Smithsonian side of the center. Although she declines to discuss why she left, colleagues say Geller felt the sting of discrimination as a female Harvard professor and was devastated when senior professors ridiculed her, saying that as a woman "she didn't have a snowball's chance in hell at getting Harvard tenure."

She is now subject to the complex rules governing the joint Harvard-Smithsonian Center, down the street from Harvard's Cambridge campus. As a Smithsonian employee, she does not have Harvard tenure, even though she and her half-dozen male colleagues have already successfully passed through the difficult Harvard tenure process, which made them senior members of the Harvard astronomy faculty. They are Smithsonian civil servants, although some, like Geller and her colleague Huchra, receive an additional partial salary from Harvard (25% in Geller's case). But should Smithsonian funding dry up, Harvard is under no commitment to pick up their full salaries.

This rankles Geller, who teaches a full course at Harvard each semester, mentors graduate students, and until recently spoke frequently at Harvard alumni and fund-raising events, often winning praise from university administrators, including a congratulatory letter from Knowles. "I have a commitment to Harvard, but Harvard does not have a commitment to me," she says. Geller also notes that Harvard's past credentials with regard to promoting women are less than stellar. For example, earlier this century, when other schools had tenured women on their faculties, Harvard dallied for decades before awarding tenure to such renowned scientists as variable star expert Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and biologist Ruth Turner. Today, Geller is also angered that Harvard counts her as tenured faculty on its lists, boosting the apparent numbers of tenured women.

A Harvard official acknowledges that Geller's strange status creates "a sense of second-class citizenship" but adds that Smithsonian professors also receive benefits that their Harvard colleagues do not get, such as 12-month salaries and federal benefits. "Margaret is in the same position as six other [distinguished professors]," says Irwin Shapiro, center director. "Three are members of the National Academy, and most have won prizes." Adds a Harvard official: "We felt we couldn't single out Margaret."

The offer of a Mallinckrodt chair, however, did single Geller out, as her colleagues did not receive this honor. After the written offer in May, however, Knowles sent Geller a letter on 16 June citing her "scholarly eminence and distinction" but noting that there would be no impact "on [her] economic or contractual relationships." Geller was incensed. "I decided not to live the lie of this professorial title," she says, and she has yet to decline or accept the offer, leaving the proffered chair in limbo.

Knowles declines to discuss the matter, but university and Smithsonian sources say that the offer of a chair was an attempt to placate Geller that clearly backfired. "The university is afraid that if they tenure her, the rest of [the Smithsonian faculty] will get pissed off and leave," says one source. "We'd have six other people in line," adds another official. And one colleague complains: "She's treated with kid gloves. She's already made herself first among equals. It's not fair that she alone gets tenure."

Officials from both institutions are now working on a plan to grant all the Smithsonian professors Harvard tenure with a financial commitment by the university. That outrages Geller, who says that an en masse tenureship diminishes the honor. "I'm worth that many men?" she quips. She says that "[Harvard astronomy chair Ramesh] Narayan and Shapiro used my situation to push forward a plan to tenure all Smithsonian professors regardless of stature." Both men reject that idea. "We've been trying to win equity for years," says Shapiro. "There is no gender component to this story," adds Narayan.

Members of a fledgling panel organized to help increase the numbers of women in the sciences at Harvard (see main text) declined to comment on Geller's situation, saying they do not know enough about the particulars. But the astronomer attracts plenty of off-the-record carping at Harvard. One male academic describes Geller as having "a bee in her bonnet." And a colleague sympathetic to her plight says, "She has a confrontational style that magnifies the problem." To Geller such criticism is, if anything, more evidence that gender is indeed part of her problem, because women fighting discrimination traditionally have been dismissed as difficult or confrontational. "A lot of women are called such names when they stand up for what they merit, while a man would just be called aggressive," she says. Her effort, she adds, has stopped short of legal action but has cost her enormous mental distress and hurt her health. "These men," she fumes, "can't imagine having something like this happen to them."