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Students sat in on 27 February at the office of Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos in Nashville in support of #MeToo advocate BethAnn McLaughlin.

Shun Ahmed/Vanderbilt Hustler

Vanderbilt panel weighs in against tenure for #MeToo scientist

A faculty grievance committee last month upheld a decision to deny tenure to BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville who has become a prominent spokesperson for the #MeToo movement in science.

“We do not find any justification to overturn the recommendation … to deny tenure,” the five-member, ad hoc Grievance Committee, composed of professors from diverse disciplines at the university and its graduate schools, wrote in a report obtained by ScienceInsider.

The committee’s word in the 12 February report is not final. The university’s chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, can overturn its decision if he justifies his move in writing to the executive committee of the university’s Board of Trust.

McLaughlin has not been seeking other work. “What happened to me was not OK,” McLaughlin says. “Anyone looking to take a tenure track job at Vanderbilt should have grave misgivings if this is considered a regular process.”

She was denied tenure in November 2017 and filed a grievance that month. She alleged an “egregious delay” in her tenure decision, violations of her civil rights including retaliation by the university after she served as a witness in a sexual harassment investigation, ethics violations by a colleague who “made baseless allegations” about her tweeting, and failure by the university to follow reasonable procedures when it twice hired outside law firms “to delve into my life, emails, and social media. … a grave misuse of power and an unreasonable inquiry.”

“Vanderbilt’s actions are illegal and should be rescinded. Dr. McLaughlin should be given tenure and restored to her proper place on Vanderbilt’s faculty,” says her lawyer, Ann Olivarius, of McAllister Olivarius in Saratoga Springs, New York. But the Grievance Committee says it “found no irregularities in the process” that led to McLaughlin’s tenure bid being voted down.

Vanderbilt has declined to comment on the particulars of the case, citing the need to hold personnel matters in confidence. But Susan Wente, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Vanderbilt, said in this statement on 6 March: “We do not tolerate sexual discrimination or misconduct, nor do we tolerate retaliation against those that stand up against it.” She added: “The tenure review case driving recent conversations is ongoing and under close review.”

McLaughlin, 51, has in the past 10 months become an outspoken advocate for women in science, particularly those who have been sexually harassed. Tweeting as @McLNeuro, she has assailed scientific societies and agencies, urging them to eject harassers. She also launched a nonprofit called #MeTooSTEM to support survivors. She met personally last month with Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). On 28 February, Collins flagged McLaughlin’s advocacy in a statement apologizing for the agency’s slow response to sexual harassment.

McLaughlin became a tenure track neuroscientist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 2005. In 2015, her department and the Faculty Appointments & Promotions Committee approved her tenure, according to university documents. The Grievance Committee report describes two evaluations by committee reviewers. One wrote: “Her department is very supportive and manuscript productivity is high.” The other wrote: “I support this promotion, but with modest enthusiasm. The publication record is more modest than I would like. … but the key aspect is the upward trajectory.”

But after that approval, McLaughlin’s tenure process was derailed. First, it was frozen for 17 months in 2015 to 2017 while a three-member Faculty Investigation Committee conducted a disciplinary probe of her for allegedly posting anonymous, derogatory tweets about colleagues. The probe was launched after complaints by Aurelio Galli, a neuroscientist then at Vanderbilt, against whom McLaughlin testified in a sexual harassment case in 2015. (A Vanderbilt investigator eventually told Galli’s accuser that the evidence couldn’t support a finding of sexual harassment. A judge dismissed a separate sexual harassment lawsuit against Galli by a former graduate student in December 2014.) “I have never been found guilty of sexual harassment or retaliation,” says Galli, now a neuroscientist at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

The committee investigating McLaughlin’s behavior split two to one in her favor, and Vanderbilt closed the probe without taking disciplinary action against her, according to university documents.

When the tenure process restarted in spring of 2017, the next review body in the tenure process, the Executive Committee of the Executive Faculty (ECEF) at the School of Medicine, was instructed to ignore the 17-month delay, which it was told was due to an “administrative matter.” According to the grievance report, initially five of the nine ECEF members voted for tenure (two with “modest enthusiasm and one with “reservations”); three members voted against tenure and one did not vote but expressed “concerns.” Among the negative and concerned voters, one wrote that McLaughlin’s portfolio showed “little to no impact on the field”; another “did not agree … that Dr. McLaughlin’s publications and internal and external service placed her in top 10% of scientists.”

After that mixed vote, Jeffrey Balser, dean of Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine who is now also CEO of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), where McLaughlin is formally employed, asked the ECEF to vote again. In a letter to the committee, he noted “allegations of violations of the Faculty Standards of Conduct” by McLaughlin, and he circulated to the committee the report of the disciplinary probe.

The Grievance Committee members write that Balser told them he intervened for two reasons: McLaughlin’s research productivity “was not consistent with promotions he had seen,” and “He was aware of the disciplinary proceedings. He views his role as managing the culture of the Medical School and finds personal attributes very important. … He did not feel that the ECEF had the full view,” according to the report. The committee concludes: “The Dean is entitled to ask for a reconsideration and given the mixed vote and comments it is not surprising that he did so.”

The second ECEF vote went unanimously against tenure. The Grievance Committee concluded that the disciplinary investigation of McLaughlin, and two additional probes by outside law firms hired by the university in 2016 and 2018, played no role. The investigations “all began after Dr. McLaughlin’s tenure dossier was complete,” their report says. The committee also notes that on the second vote, “seven of the nine members of the ECEF said they paid no attention to the Faculty Investigation report.” As a result, “We do not believe that these circumstances affected the tenure decision.” 

Olivarius disputes their conclusion. “This process looks highly irregular to me and to every academic we have consulted. It dragged on for years. Three different committees voted yes, but the dean intervened—and it is impossible to think that BethAnn’s complaint about Aurelio Galli’s behavior and her support of others who complained about discrimination had nothing to do with this.”   

The Grievance Committee is also charged with making recommendations to the chancellor. In addition to urging that the tenure grievance process be sped up, the committee concludes that “the culture for women in at least some areas of the [medical] school requires [Balser’s] attention.” The Grievance Committee report also catalogs McLaughlin’s recent work in, and recognition for, #MeTooSTEM advocacy, including pressure that propelled AAAS, which publishes Science, to adopt a policy last fall allowing proven sexual harassers to be stripped of honorary AAAS fellowships. The panel writes that it has received 17 letters of support for her tenure, including from Science Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Berg; “several suggest that both accomplishments in research and advocacy merit tenure.”

Zeppos is under pressure to spare McLaughlin’s job. On 27 February, Vanderbilt students staged a sit-in at his office. A petition urging Zeppos to grant McLaughlin tenure has gathered more than 10,600 signatures since 15 February.

Vanderbilt last week issued a statement noting that, contrary to earlier reporting in Science, McLaughlin remains on the VUMC payroll. “Although it has been reported publicly that Dr. McLaughlin’s employment ends on February 28, we are not aware of any deadlines tied to that date. The matter is ongoing and under careful review.”

McLaughlin says she has had conflicting communications from Vanderbilt, one indicating a 28 February end date, and another stating that her employment will end on 29 March, the same date that, according to an NIH database, her current grant expires. The Grievance Committee recommends that, if she is terminated, she be given one more year on the faculty, allowing her to complete a job search. “Faculty who are denied tenure ordinarily have a year to find other opportunities.”

*Correction, 11 March, 5:55 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct Jeffrey Balser's name.