How a BU professor fought her sexist denial of tenure and won
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an assistant professor in possession of widely admired scholarship should receive tenure.
And yet, in 1981, Boston University denied tenure to professor Julia Brown despite her nationally reviewed book on Jane Austen and the near-unanimous support of her colleagues.
Over the next decade, Brown took the university to court, alleging sexual discrimination. In the end, a federal jury, three federal appeals court judges, and the Supreme Court agreed with her, ordering the university to grant her tenure, $215,000, and lawyer’s fees. Like an Austen novel, but fought in the courts instead of in the drawing room, Brown’s case turns the banality of an insular culture—for Brown, academia; for Austen, Georgian gentry—into a dramatic study of the way society restricts women’s opportunities.
It’s almost too fitting, then, that in the book that should have gotten her tenure, Brown argues that Austen’s novels carry “the idea of social change,” specifically as women gain an “increased freedom of choice in marriage.” Brown writes about how Austen uses the technique of irony to articulate her “moral vision,” or as Brown says, to “mediate between the ideal and the real.” In other words, Austen’s comedic characters exist for more than just laughs: Austen’s humor points out where society fails to measure up to a more morally just vision of itself.
Brown is retiring this year, and the university she leaves is very different from the one of her tenure suit that began more than 30 years ago. But while much has changed, Brown’s story contains a certain timelessness, particularly in the current struggle by women against institutions traditionally dominated by men. Like an Austen novel, Brown’s battle forces a reckoning with the type of sexism society tries to hide from itself. As Brown says, “Making the people who had done this have to defend themselves and be accountable, that was worth it.”
Julia Brown came to BU in 1974, fresh from graduate school at Columbia University, where she studied with some of the most well-known academics of the 20th century, like Lionel Trilling, Michael Wood, and feminist scholar Kate Millet. Millet’s Sexual Politics, published in 1970, “absolutely blew people out of the water,” says Brown. “It was an attack on sexism in writers. She was a political radical and she had an influence on me.”
Brown recalls why she decided to move to New England, “It was a great job. It was in a major city. It was a really attractive, major research university. That’s the kind of place I wanted to be.”
Less than four years before Brown arrived in the city, BU’s board of trustees appointed John Silber to serve as president of the university. As the student union president from Silber’s first year at BU told a campus newspaper for the president’s obituary (Silber died in 2012), Silber was “a great man in terms of being a leader to build the university into a major corporation.” But according to Brown and many others, Silber’s efforts to turn the school into more of a corporation began with alienating students and faculty.
Many at the university fought back. The faculty, including Brown, unionized and then went on strike. In her suit, Brown alleged her denial of tenure was retaliation for the strike, which she fully supported, in addition to sexual discrimination; the jury, however, only found the university guilty of the latter count.
During the strike, Brown’s friend Howard Zinn, noted historian and author of A People’s History of the United States, wrote in a 2010 autobiography that he rented a loudspeaker and conducted class for 200 students outside on Commonwealth Ave.
“To get a faculty of intellectuals and scholars to do that was really extraordinary,” Brown says about the strike. This event was historic. As Brown’s lawyer Dahlia Rudavsky said during the trial, the action represented “the first and only time in its history [the faculty] went on strike.” Brown explains: “These were people who are not fighters by nature. They are scholars. They don’t want to be wasting time picketing. It was bizarre. It was ridiculous.”
I first heard about many of the details of Brown’s case at an English department reception in the Metcalf building at 1 Silber Way. In a speech on her retirement, Brown’s colleague, professor of English William Carroll reflected on the irony of the ceremony’s location: In Silber’s former office, on a street named after Silber, the department was celebrating the career of a woman Silber fought for so many years.
“Some more recent colleagues and students may not know,” he said, “that our mild-mannered and cordial Julia also took on and defeated [him] … in a federal courtroom as well as in the court of public opinion.”
The case went from largely private, insulated sexism to a public battle in the courts and press, and fast. What started in the bureaucratic confines of three-letter committees spilled into a federal courtroom, then onto the pages of national newspapers, and finally tainted Silber’s failed campaign for Massachusetts governor in 1990.
At first, Brown’s tenure battle bounced between faculty meetings. After six years at the university she became eligible for tenure. Following what professor Eugene Goodheart, department chair, said was an “unusually positive discussion” about Brown’s teaching and research, the English department voted unanimously, 22-0, in recommendation of Brown’s tenure. Brown’s book, published to acclaim by Harvard University Press, was reviewed widely, including in the New York Times. With such a strong record, two more committees, one with a vote of 9-0 and another with a vote of 9-2, recommended her.
But despite the overwhelming approval of more than 50 of her colleagues (later, the third committee amended its vote to 10-0 in her favor), Silber’s administration pushed back. The dean took issue with elements of Brown’s scholarly work and suggested Brown be subject to a three-year extension, after which she would be reviewed again. The assistant provost and provost echoed the dean’s reservations, but Brown felt the extension was simply delaying the inevitable denial of tenure. Brown says she asked the dean, What would I have to do to get tenure in three years?
“And the dean said to me, ‘Have a second book written and published,’” Brown recalls. “A second book! And you can’t even get a book printed in that time. … In three years I would have been denied tenure. So I may as well just go for it right then and there and just do it.”
I recently spoke to Rudavsky, Brown’s lawyer, on the phone about the trial. Rudavsky remembers Brown’s decision not to take the extension as “a stand on principle.” “A lot of people would have taken that” extension, Rudavsky explains. “That shows [Brown] was very much acting out of principle. … She had worked hard and she had earned it, and she was going to stand for that and not take second best.”
As Rudavsky, Brown’s lawyer, told the court in her opening statements in July 1987, “This case is not about abstract concepts; it’s not about discrimination in the abstract. … It is about the life and work of one woman … a woman who at an early age had a dream of becoming a writer and becoming a teacher and who set out to prepare herself for a career as a college professor so she could fulfill her dream.”
But when Brown talks about why she took the university to court, it is often more than a fight to restore a very personal, individual “brilliant career” that was “shattered by the administration and trustees of BU almost beyond repair,” as Rudavsky said. For Brown, it was also a matter of standing up for the women who preceded her and, like Brown, were denied tenure. Among the documents Brown sent me, in the context of a speech, was a list of over 19 women faculty at BU she says reported, to her and to others, being unfairly “denied promotion or tenure, or merit increase,” or experienced “some other form of unequal treatment” because of their gender.
Looking back, she told me, “I felt really strongly that I was at the end of a long line of women who had been unjustly denied tenure at BU and that someone had to stand up. I had money in the bank. So I was at a kind of advantage.” Brown had the money, the support, and ultimately, the guts to stand up to the university publicly. “Things go on behind the scenes all the time at universities and they don’t want people to find out about it,” Brown says. She was up to the challenge of letting people know.
The trial carried a high cost for Brown. BU and its lawyers interrogated her and her work, calling parts of her scholarship “surprisingly bad,” and insinuating she was a “lousy teacher,” “lazy,” and “doesn’t do much work.” Silber accused her of paranoia. Besides the humiliation of courtroom comments, the case dragged on, lasting around 10 years. The legal process was, for Brown, a “tremendous, continual distraction. It really slowed down my work. Terribly. Slowed it down terribly.” Brown spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees, and “towards the end,” she says, “I would have owed [my lawyer] a lot of money. I would have owed her $100,000 probably if I had lost.”
Part of the trial even involved litigating emotional damages, an experience where Brown was asked about her depression. Following her denial of tenure, Brown says, “I got depressed and I remember talking about that. I saw a therapist who testified for me. I cringed when he was called to the stand, and left the courtroom. I hated it.” Seeing a therapist, Brown reminds me, “was viewed differently then than it is now. So that sort of branded me a little bit as a nutcase to a lot of members of the public.”
Through it all, Brown persisted.
The main argument presented by Brown and her lawyer during the jury trial involved a comparative analysis, showing that if it weren’t for sexism, Brown would have gotten tenure: The question was whether “she had been held to a stricter standard than her male peers,” according to the appellate court.
Because the heart of the argument involved comparing the record of professors-to-be or not to be with one another, these parts of the trial meant agonizingly listing and analyzing the minutiae of academia. At one point the judge asked Brown’s lawyer, “Do you really want to do this to a jury, before a jury? The vicissitudes of academia … are about as foreign to these people as growing oats on Mars.”
On one hand, Brown and her lawyer argued that Brown’s scholarship more than measured up. On the other, though they weren’t experts in the field, Silber and other members of the administration tried to prove where Brown’s scholarship failed. Silber implied that Austen was an inherently less complex or worthy subject than Dryden or Kant. At one point, Brown told me, the dean “said that he felt comfortable judging a book on Jane Austen because he had lived in England near where Jane Austen lived.” At this point, “The judge leaned over and said,” according to the transcript, “not in those times?” To which the dean replied, “Not quite, sir.”
BU’s lawyers and witnesses fairly literally put Brown’s work under a microscope. “They would take a bad review of my book,” Brown says, “and blow it up and put it on this great big poster board,” magnifying it and pointing out criticism of her work. Brown’s colleagues were able to put that criticism in perspective, like professor Goodheart when he said: “I am glad that I am not on trial here, because if you examined the reviews of my books … ” As Brown says,“The academy is made up of people who dispute all the time, who argue and disagree—you can have disagreement about the book.” The fact that Brown’s book spurred a lively debate in mainstream and academic publications was a mark of its success.
Though the case mostly centered on this type of sophisticated comparison of academic records, or what the appellate court judge calls “voluminous tenure files” of “‘similarly situated’ faculty,” the specific sexism of the man, John Silber, came into question as well.
Brown noted her particular enemy when she said: “There are women younger than myself and my own age who must fight adversaries far more clever and cautious, far more guarded and knowing, than John Silber. In an age in which sexism has gone underground, he was wonderfully forthright. If you must have an opponent, I would wish on you someone like him.”
To illustrate the point broadly, Brown recounted a story from the trial itself. At the end of the first day of Silber’s testimony, first Silber and then his lawyer asked if they could interrupt his cross examination and “alter the schedule to accommodate him” by meeting much earlier in the morning. Brown tells me, “And here there are women on the jury who had adjusted their schedules to serve on the jury and who were coming from afar and at real inconvenience to get to the downtown courthouse every day.” The judge, politely but firmly, responded, “You can come back and respond to cross-examination or we will simply strike all his testimony.”
Brown called Silber her “star witness,” not just because of his arrogance, but also because of his explicit sexism. In 1990, the year the Supreme Court agreed with the appellate decision by denying to hear the case, Silber was running for governor. In a televised debate, his opponent rattled off “the long list of published commentary by Silber on the subject of women,” Brown says, and “three-quarters of his examples were taken from the transcript” of her trial.
One of the most quoted phrases from the trial was Silber’s statement that the English department, where only six of over 20 faculty members were women, was “a damn matriarchy.” In another quote, republished by the Globe, Silber said, “There’s not very many years that a woman is a beautiful girl,” and that those years are “roughly from 15 to 25—10 years, that’s not a long time.” Another time, when another female professor was up for tenure he told her, “Your husband is a parachute, so why are you worried[?]”
Brown summarized these revelations of Silber’s sexism to me like this: “One of the things the case did, was it brought out in the open certain ways of speaking about women.” Brown heard that at an all-male dinner for economists, Silber had joked about judging the “‘bed-worthiness’ of women coming up for tenure.” For Brown, the sexism and arrogance of the administration was institutionalized. Brown says that for a period, the only woman in the upper administration was a nun, and because of this the faculty members often joked that “you have to be celibate to get tenure,” or that “you would get tenure if you gave up your firstborn son to the university.”
After years of litigation, a jury agreed: Brown’s denial of tenure constituted discrimination. If it weren’t for sexism, she would have received tenure. Brown won $200,000, $15,000 in emotional damages, legal fees, and tenure. This type of award of tenure was extremely rare and never before granted in subjective circumstances. Several other universities—MIT, Williams, Boston College, Tufts, Suffolk, Adelphi—filed an amicus brief on behalf of BU, out of a worry that the court would undermine their power. Though BU argued during the trial that “neither [the jury] nor anybody else is entitled to second-guess the university’s decision” and the universities collectively argued that granting tenure violated their first amendment rights, the circuit court found that “academic freedom does not include the freedom to discriminate … on the basis of sex.”
Brown’s victory in many ways represented a public victory for women. In a speech to the Radcliffe Institute in 1990, Brown talks about “silencing of women” and what her victory means to women.
But at the very end of that speech she notes how her victory is not an exclusively feminist victory. For Brown, the case became a symbolic triumph over rule by “administrative fiat.” While Brown’s denial of tenure represented a move towards corporatization, with dozens of experts overruled by less than a handful of administrators, her victory represents a return to “intellectual values.”
Brown’s father was an amateur boxer, and he fought in the Golden Gloves. During the four days of her testimony, in July 1987, the Globe reported how Brown “decompressed” by watching the famous middleweight title bout between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler “on a tape brought back from Las Vegas by her husband.” Brown told the Globe, “The fight was like my court battle.” The boxer’s stamina became a reflection on her own: “I had thought [he] would win if he could go the distance, if he made it to the end.”
Brown’s determination made the university pay, a victory that cemented the precedent she set with additional monetary cost for the university: “They had to pay the piper for delaying it for so long because they had to pay interest for every year. And that was a good thing because it made universities afraid.”
Reflecting on that long fight, Brown remembers Silber “saying I had ‘no staying power.’” I talk with Brown in her empty office, shelves newly cleaned, as she looks back over her career: four books published with a fifth on the way, admiring colleagues around her, generations of courses taught and students advised.
More than 20 years after the dust settled, with the files buried deep in archives, Brown sums up her experience succinctly: “I don’t have any regrets.” She lost years of research, risked significant debt, and had her depression questioned in a federal court; but for Brown, it was a fight worth having.
“You really do lose something if people treat you unjustly and you don’t stand up to them,” she says. “You lose something inwardly and you lose something morally if you don’t oppose injustice done to you. You absolutely must fight it to maintain your integrity.”
This article was written in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you would like to see more reporting like this, please consider supporting independent media at givetobinj.org.
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.