Curiouser and curiouser: Malice in Tenureland

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.  Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.  “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.  “There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.  “Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,” said Alice angrily.  “It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,” said the March Hare.

alice-in-tenureland.jpgThis is a follow-up to my super-cheerful post on Wednesday, “Tenure:  What is it good for?  (Absolutely nothing?)”  Hear now the tale of Sheri Klouda, a faculty member who was told she wouldn’t be tenured at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary because the good men of SBTS “believe women are biblically forbidden from teaching men.”  (Yes–you read that correctly.  I know it doesn’t make any sense, but bear with me.)  Her contract wasn’t renewed in 2006, so she took them to court.  She’s in the news this week because a judge dismissed her lawsuit, claiming that their “religious beliefs” make it all nice’n’legal (on First Amendment grounds, natch.)  This ruling doesn’t make any sense at all.  Their “religious beliefs” prevent women from teaching men at all, so–why was she hired?  Other women remain on the faculty–apparently they have no rights as employees which SBTS is bound to respect.  How disturbing that U.S. District Judge John McBryde doesn’t find it troubling that these deeply held “religious beliefs” are checked at the door until they’re needed to block a woman’s promotion.  Disturbing, but not surprising–after all, this is characteristic of that crazy, mixed-up, through-the-looking-glass place called Tenureland, where nothing is as it seems!

21 thoughts on “Curiouser and curiouser: Malice in Tenureland

  1. So let me get this straight. She spends 6 years teaching at a place that promotes a regressive, sexist, fundamentalist agenda, and then she complains when that agenda turns around and bites her on the arse? Bloody well serves her right. I’ve got no sympathy for her.


  2. Really, nerdiah? And the seminary that hired her against their own “religious beliefs” bears no responsibility for hiring her in the first place? I haven’t seen any media reports that suggest that she shared their values–in fact, the story I linked to says that she says she was assured that so long as her performance was good, her employment prospects looked bright.

    What about women who teach at Catholic universities, or other sectarian colleges or universities? Many Christian denominations still privilege men over women (in terms of who’s eligible for the priesthood, at least), as well as teach that men and women have separate, distinct roles they can play in family life and in the world at large. Can women who teach at those institutions really not expect fair treatment as employees?


  3. For sure, the seminary are being incredibly hypocritical. I didn’t deny it. If it was okay to hire her for 6 years, then it should have been okay to give her a fair look-in for tenure. Makes sense.

    And I disagree with the ruling of the judge. I’m no lawyer, but it just does not seem right to me that their religious beliefs can infringe upon someone’s basic rights like that. I don’t know enough about American law to say more than that, that is just my feeling on it.

    But all that said, is it really plausible that after 6 years there, interacting in the class-room and the tea-room and attending social events and lectures, that she had no idea just what kind of institution this is? That she had no idea what she was contributing to?

    The way I see it, she was happy to be a part of an institution that had an ideology damaging to women, just like her, provided that it didn’t harm her personally. She received an oral assurance that her own job would be safe provided that she performed well, and perform she did. Presumably it didn’t matter to her that she was the only female prof there, that they were “teaching” god-knows-what down the hall, just as long as she had her job. That this “oral assurance” ended up being as flimsy as her spine … well, I’m an atheist, but sometimes it does seem that the universe has a distinctly intelligent and wicked sense of humour. So I say, yes, what they did was wrong, and what the judge ruled was wrong, but it still serves her bloody well right.

    Check out what she says at the end of the article:

    “The biggest contradiction is that Dr. Patterson and Southwestern and … all of us agree that I am not a minister or pastor”.

    She considers that the biggest contradiction?! So in other words, she is not disputing the idea that women aren’t qualified to be ministers, she just doesn’t like it being applied to her. Presumably because she’s a lecturer, not a minister? Well I’m sorry, sister, but maybe you should reread the scripture upon which that is based:

    1 Tim 2:11-15: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

    I think that’s pretty unambiguous, don’t you?

    So no, I don’t have a damn of sympathy for her. I’ll save my sympathy for all the women who have suffered and will suffer thanks to the 6 years she gave to that regressive, patriarchal institution, and the bullshit they no-doubt fed to a horde of young men who will go on to be ministers, right-wing activists, commentators, Republican politicians, etc. If anything, I’m glad that she got to experience the effects of her own treachery first hand. Justice is rare and sweet, and should be celebrated when it can. I hope she learnt something valuable from it.


  4. Hrm. So, I just had a conversation with my partner about this. I guess how one feels towards her depends upon how much you think an employee is obliged to choose an employer whose ethics or culture is consistent with their own. My partner and I found ourselves disagreeing ultimately on that point.

    If someone accepts a job with an organisation, aren’t they implicitly accepting its culture and reputation as well? Aren’t they saying “I agree (in some sense) with this organisation, and I want to be a part of it”? Or is it ‘just a job’. I think it depends upon the person’s position — she’s not the vice-chancellor, but then she’s not the janitor either. Perhaps I see profs as being more responsible for the organisation that they choose than most people would, especially after spending so long there. Maybe that’s why we’re disagreeing.


  5. Nerdiah–thanks for writing again. I think you raise a good issue about an individual’s culpability for her employer’s values and practices. Because of the system of faculty self-governance in most universities, I think it’s reasonable to hold faculty more accountable for their institution’s values and practices than, say, your average jane doe working at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s. But, I would say that’s only true for the tenured faculty, who are the only ones at most universities to have an ongoing role and voice in policy-making decisions. And, after all, Sheri Klouda never had the opportunity to join the tenured ranks at that Seminary.

    But, I still think you’re too judgemental of Klouda, for two reasons: first of all, I don’t know about you or most of my readers, but I was never offered a “choice” between employers. I’ve only ever been offered one academic job at a time, so my “choice” was between unemployment and employment, not between the ethical practices at one university versus another. So, we don’t know that Klouda’s choice to teach at that Seminary may have been her “choice” to feed, clothe, and shelter herself. Secondly, I think your question, “if someone accepts a job with an organisation, aren’t they implicitly accepting its culture and reputation as well?” suggests a standard that no feminist looking for an academic job in the U.S. could possibly meet. There is no such thing as a university based on feminist principles and devoted to the spread of feminism. Some universities–like the Seminary under discussion here–are explicitly devoted to the spread of anti-feminism. Most universities are secular, but they’re powerful tools for the reproduction of the (anti-feminist) status-quo. Many of us take jobs because we hope in some small way to help change the culture of our universities for students, faculty, and staff, and because we don’t believe that “hiding our light under a bushel” (if you can bear a biblical allusion) is any way to advance feminist teaching, scholarship, or service. I think you’ll be doomed to disappointment if you go looking for ethical perfection in large institutions like universities. (For the record, I’ve taught at 2 Catholic universities, at a small women’s college, and at a large public land-grant university. Unfortunately, they had much more in common than their different missions–and different student bodies–would suggest.)

    I admire your fiery spririt and demanding principles–but I just think they’re somewhat misapplied to an individual woman rather than to the creepy insititution that seems to have employed her under false pretences.


  6. I agree Historiann- I applied for 20 or so jobs last year after completing my masters, was offered one interview and was offered that job much to my relief as I wasn’t sure how the mortgage was going to get paid (my partner didn’t have a job either- unexpectedly). Particularly in history, the job market is saturated and thus any job is a good one.
    If Klouda had been told from the start that she didn’t have a chance in hell of making tenure then I’d agree with Nerdiah but clearly she wasn’t expecting this. I also don’t think it would have been realistic, after being told she would eventually make tenure for her to assume that they might be lying.


  7. If we permit the courts to dictate church policy to the Southern Baptists, we must not object when Southern Baptists–through a free election–take over a public school board and impose some of their views school policy, whether hiring and firing or prayers and the hanging of the Ten Commandments on the wall. The First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses go hand in hand: churches are protected from the secular government which is also protected from churches.

    However, it is not clear from the news summary of this case that First Amendment issues are at stake. Rather, if Sheri Klouda’s allegation has merit, the inconsistency between words spoken and actions taken reveals dishonesty of the sort that is prohibited throughout the Bible, not merely in a single passage written by the Apostle Paul. If those leading the seminaries that train pastors are willing to lie to their professors on matters regarding employment contracts, the Southern Baptists have some housecleaning ahead of them.

    I’m not certain that I have issues with the court decision–I’d need to read more of the case first–but the plaintiff’s claim raises some troubling prospects.


  8. Right on, James–I agree entirely. She wouldn’t have a case if her complaint was that they wouldn’t hire her, since that conflicts with their belief that women shouldn’t instruct men in the classroom. But, having hired her, they owe her fair treatment, and it’s not fair to retroactively remember that allowing women to instruct men is against their religious beliefs. There is a simple solution to this problem–don’t hire women. I disagree with their beliefs (obviously), but I don’t have a problem with a religious institutions so long as they’re consistent in practicing what they say they believe.


  9. Sometimes tenure is a funny prize. In the “best case scenario,” she would have the honor of working at a university that stated explicitly that they didn’t want her around.


  10. That’s the prize that everyone who “wins” hir tenure battle gets, no? (Yay? Congratulations?) Like you, GayProf, Historiann decided to “ease on down the road” from a bad first job, but others don’t necessarily have the option…


  11. I think Nerdiah makes some excellent points. While I don’t think Klouda’s denial is an occasion for triumph, I do think there is ample room to question her choices, as well as the justice of the tenure decision and the legal upholding of it. This is not a case with a pure “heroine” being victimized; no one in this case seems very admirable to me.

    Yes, most academics are only offered one job at a time, and I can understand her taking such a position on a temporary basis. But I believe I can state unambiguously that I would find it an intolerable conflict with my own ethical standards to make a career at a place such as this one. I would work like hell to find another position. If unable to do so, I would leave academia rather than live with the shameful weight of furthering an agenda such as this one.


  12. My knowledge of this case is limited to what Historiann tells us, but it seems to me that there are two issues here. The first is our willingness to “settle” for jobs even if they represent a compromise of our ethics. I fear that for many, reality is often at odds with our ideals. Even those stuck in undesirable positions cannot always look elsewhere-family commitments (a husband or sick relative) make moving difficult, and the market is such that even if one tries, it can still be impossible to find employment elsewhere. And if one’s choice is a compromise position or leaving academia? I know that after 7 years of grad school and 8 years on the job, as a medievalist, I am qualified to do absolutely nothing outside of academia. How much of a choice is there here?

    That said, no one should ever take verbal assurances of tenure at face value. Unless her colleagues who assured her that it wouldn’t be an issue were willing to leave a paper trail, I say she’s naive to not anticipate a problem. The system is such that even the most qualified people who do everything they’ve been told can be denied tenure. Klouda would have been better serve to anticipate opposition, and breathe a sigh of relief if none came.


  13. All the focus on what she did wrong or might have done wrong in not foreseeing this seems odd to me. It seems like
    saying, “oh it’s not the system, it’s that she didn’t know how to play it, this wouldn’t happen to me because I would be more savvy.” But no – it’s not that straightforward and friendly, tenureland isn’t.


  14. Squadrato–one thing we haven’t considered is that she may not be a feminist, or in any case, feminist values may be superceded by her religious beliefs. In other words, her decision to accept a job at the seminary may have been motivated by the need for a job, but it may also have been the case that she believed in (most) of the values of that institution. I still think she deserves a fair shake as an employee. Equality before the law applies whether or not she is a feminist. And ej, you make a good point too, but we don’t know that that’s exactly what she did (“Klouda would have been better serve to anticipate opposition,”–well, but anticipating opposition in my opinion doesn’t preclude legal action!)

    And Prof. Zero–you know too well whereof you speak about the treachery of Tenureland…


  15. You’re right. I’ve gone out on a limb and made some assumptions about her that, while not unreasonable, could only be verified by sitting down and talking with her personally. For all I know she did spend those 6 years busting her gut trying to change the uni culture, or trying desperately to find a better place to work while some unknown circumstance prevented her. It’s not very likely, but I guess when you have an actual private citizen who probably didn’t want this kind of fame anyway, it’s best to err on the side of caution. I would feel bad if she stumbled upon my comments if they have been unfair and failed to take into account some unknown factor.

    I guess ultimately I can’t comprehend how any woman could bear to work at such a place, especially one who is willing to go to court like that. It would take massive cognitive dissonance to, on one hand, accept a culture that would take that Timothy verse on face value, but simultaneously believe that you as a woman are worthy of teaching men, or that it somehow doesn’t apply to you.

    I think it’s that latter possibility that got me so fired up in the first place — the suspicion that she was happy to let it slide, just as long as it didn’t effect her. But then, as soon as it did, she was willing to (try to) take advantage of avenues that other women had to fight hard to make available to her – women from an ideology that she had worked to undermine. But again, this is a presumption based upon one small article.

    I take your point regarding where one ‘chooses’ to work, and whether one should choose not to work somewhere because they don’t believe in the organisation. There’s obviously a grey-area here, depending upon what the norm is, what one’s station there will be, how desperate one is for a job, etc. It is my opinion that working for a place like this Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, especially for so long, is not right for anyone who would believe in trying to invoke the law over the Bible. But it is my opinion, and could easily be changed if some other factor was in play.


  16. Professor Zero wrote: “All the focus on what she did wrong or might have done wrong in not foreseeing this seems odd to me.

    Yes, I can see how it would look that way. I think the reason I focused on her first is because the behaviour of the seminary wasn’t very surprising to me. “Like, OMG! Fundamentalist Christians are being liars and hypocrites! Stop the presses!” … But the apparent contradiction in her own behaviour I noticed. Fundamentalist males will do what fundamentalists males will do, but I expect another woman to pull her weight. That it appeared that she was a freeloader made me spiteful towards her.


  17. Nerdiah, thanks for your further comments. The values issue is an interesting and complex one. As most of us who work/have worked in universities know, there are concentric circles in which we work–the university, the college within the university, and the department/s within the college. I worked for two different places–a university and a college–that espoused wonderful values at the institutional level, but my department didn’t in fact live up to those stated values. So–what’s a girl to do in a case like that? (Well, I resigned, but only because I had another job offer.) What if someone works in a unit with people she respects and who treat each other well, but the institution itself is at odds with her personal beliefs and values? It’s a difficult question.


  18. Pingback: It's your misfortune, and none of my own | Historiann

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