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Associate Professor Sues Harvard Over Tenure Denial06:46

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People walk through Harvard Yard at Harvard University. (Lisa Poole/AP)closemore
People walk through Harvard Yard at Harvard University. (Lisa Poole/AP)

A former Harvard associate professor is pursuing a federal Title IX lawsuit against the university, alleging she was discriminated against while trying to secure tenure there in 2013.

Kimberly Theidon, a medical anthropologist who recently was granted tenure at Tufts University, filed the lawsuit last month. In it, she accuses Harvard of punishing her for defending victims of sexual assault.

Theidon says she filed suit because she doesn’t want Harvard to retaliate against any other professors who speak out in support of students.

An Unexpected Rejection

Two years ago, Theidon went to the chairman of her department when she'd learned Harvard had denied her tenure.

"And he was baffled, and suggested I go talk to the vice provost for diversity, Judith Singer," Theidon said in a recent interview at the office of one her attorneys.

Theidon said Singer soon met with her, but that the conversation left her feeling "stunned."

"I was told, among other things, 'Kimberly, they discussed your political activities. You know, most people wait on those kinds of political activities until they have tenure,' " Theidon said.

Theidon, who is an expert on sexual violence, says when Singer cited "political activities," she meant Theidon's defense of sexual assault victims at Harvard. Theidon was a vocal supporter on campus of the rights of survivors of sexual assault.

With her lawsuit, Theidon says she would like to save Harvard students and professors from the suffering she's been through, referring to her lack of tenure. Theidon says the problems at Harvard are symptomatic of problems at other universities.

Colleagues, Students Admired Her Work

"She really was just the most amazing professor I had at Harvard, by far," said Chloe Veron, a former student.

Ryan Thoreson, another former student, said Theidon's defense of sexual assault victims at Harvard inspired him to dedicate his first book to her.

"Her advocacy on behalf of sexual assault survivors, and students generally, set a great example and has really meant a lot to me and a lot of other students at Harvard," Thoreson said.

Theidon says she was on track for tenure in the anthropology department. She was given an endowed chair.

"In fact, I had already been asked to lay out my two tenured-suite offices, because they were so absolutely positive that I was going to be getting tenure," Theidon said, providing WBUR with emails to back up her story.

"I was told by colleagues, who were stunned when I was denied tenure, that the faculty vote within the department was unanimous," she said.

Emails and conversations with Theidon's former colleagues in the department confirm that they voted unanimously for her tenure and thought hers was "a slam-dunk case," in the words of one professor.

None of the professors would speak on the record, however. One professor said faculty in the anthropology department have been told by the Harvard administration not to speak about Theidon's case.

What Theidon Thinks Went Wrong

Theidon said things started to go awry for her when she wrote comments in The Harvard Crimson, the campus' daily student newspaper, in support of students criticizing Harvard's handling of sexual assaults.

She said she was "appalled" by the "lack of any response" from Harvard administrators.

"Where were they defending these young women? Where was someone stepping up on their behalf and saying you simply cannot attack them this way? No one. There was absolute silence from the administration," she said.

Harvard issued a statement on Theidon's case. It reads, in part:

"There is no merit whatsoever to [Kimberly Theidon's] allegations of discrimination or retaliation. Any advocacy on Dr. Theidon’s part on behalf of victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault at Harvard was not known, let alone considered, as part of the University’s decision on her tenure case. Moreover, such advocacy would never adversely affect a tenure decision at Harvard."

A few weeks after she first commented in the Crimson, Theidon said a graduate student told her she'd been sexually harassed by a professor.

"And indeed this student had gone to other faculty previously for assistance, and she's been told to be quiet," Theidon said. "And I told her that was an unacceptable piece of advice."

Theidon said she advised the student to take the matter up with a tenured professor or with the chairman of her department.

A few weeks later she received an email from the student, thanking her for giving her the courage to speak out.

"And then she added, 'They have told me not to speak with you about this further, Kimberly, because your quote 'shining destiny hangs in the balance,' end quote,' " Theidon said, recalling what the student told her.

"And then shortly thereafter, the chair of my tenure committee hurriedly took me into her office, acknowledged that she knew I had been told things by at least one student, and told me to be very quiet, not repeat anything I had been told; this was a very sensitive time for me," she said.

Theidon believes her comments in the Crimson, followed by the advice she gave to the graduate student, led Harvard President Drew Faust to deny her tenure.

Theidon said after she was denied tenure, students reached out. She read an email from a student who said she lost two friends who committed suicide after being forced to attend class with what the student describes as their rapists.

"I mean, there's a lot that's heartbreaking in this," Theidon said. "It's hard to read. 'Kimberly, I applaud your strong stance and your personal commitment to students in an academic environment where that support from your professor is rare.' "

Theidon is now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. This fall, she is joining the faculty of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts as a tenured professor.

James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School, issued a statement calling Theidon "by far the best scholar and teacher in a brilliant field of candidates." He cited her expertise in Latin America, as well as her deep experience specializing in human security issues.

Theidon says she looks at what happened to her at Harvard as a warning to any other professors who would dare to defend students who have been the victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment.

"And that means that if we're perceived as someone who is going to be speaking out about these issues, they get rid of us," Theidon said.

Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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