Read our COVID-19 research and news.

MIT as 'Intractable Enemy'

Today women from Hillary Clinton on down are praising the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for recognizing and beginning to correct its unfair treatment of female scientists (see main text). But 5 years ago, at least one woman viewed the prestigious school not as an ally but as a powerful enemy. In 1994, the same year that senior biologist Nancy Hopkins and her colleagues were taking grievances to their superiors and finding a compassionate ear in the school of science, the MIT administration was fighting a messy sex discrimination suit involving the school of engineering. The suit was filed by Gretchen Kalonji, an associate professor in the materials science and engineering department, who specializes in crystalline defects and their effects on the physical properties of materials. With a bachelor of science degree and a Ph.D. from MIT, she was the second woman to be hired by the department. By 1986 she was an associate professor on the tenure track. "The situation was grave for junior women," several of whom did not get tenure, she recalls.

Kalonji herself was turned down for tenure in 1988. Arguing that she was qualified for tenure and had been discriminated against because she was female, she appealed to the dean of the school of engineering, who organized a committee to examine the matter. That group found that the tenure process was "unacceptably flawed," according to the committee's confidential report, which was presented to the dean and obtained by Science. The investigators determined that the department "was less supportive of women" and that Kalonji faced "a higher hurdle than some males." In addition, "senior male members of the department stereotype women, making the atmosphere inherently more difficult for women."

Kalonji's lawyer, Michael Altman of Boston, says that faculty members on the tenure committee who were interviewed as part of the investigation noted that "people talked about the fact that she was married to an African and was politically left." Kalonji adds that she was actively pressing for university divestiture of its holdings in South Africa because of that country's apartheid policies, and that this had created tension between her and her colleagues and superiors.

The dean organized a second committee to reevaluate the tenure panel's decision. According to Kalonji, he ordered members not to consider the disadvantages Kalonji may have faced as a result of discrimination, but only her credentials. The committee denied her tenure again, and in 1991 the dean confirmed that decision. By then, Kalonji had moved to a position at the University of Washington, Seattle, where she has tenure today.

After 3 years of fruitless waiting for a backlogged Massachusetts state office to consider her complaint, Kalonji instead filed suit in federal court in 1994. She argued that her research support had been minimal, that she had been granted far less lab space than her male colleagues, and that she had been pushed into working on a defense contract that impeded more prestigious research. All of those disadvantages affected her tenure bid, she maintained.

The university strongly denied that any discrimination had occurred. One MIT official familiar with the suit says Kalonji made a persuasive case, but another university source recalls that there was a general feeling in the engineering school that she lacked the qualifications for tenure. The university fought hard to prove that point. "MIT proved the most intractable of enemies," says another university official. At the eleventh hour, just as the dispute was to go before a judge in 1995, MIT agreed to settle for an undisclosed amount. Kalonji received the last of a series of payments in January, and, at her insistence, MIT also agreed to spend at least $50,000 a year for 5 years on a national program encouraging women and minority grad students and postdocs to move onto university faculties. Kalonji initially chaired the effort but has since relinquished the position, and she says that the program appears to have languished.

A joint 1995 statement by Kalonji and then-MIT Provost Mark Wrighton, now chancellor at Washington University in St. Louis, announced the new program as a "key element" in her withdrawal of the suit. Wrighton did not return phone calls, but current MIT officials say the welcome granted to disgruntled women in the school of science that same year was not connected to the diversity initiative or to Kalonji's suit. But Kalonji feels that "the suit had a positive effect. The fact that they were forced to settle with me woke up the administration."