This is not just about sex-discrimination in science

July 1, 2011

A news bit by J. Mervis in Science reports a case in which a professor is suing her institution for reneging on financial commitments made during her recruitment.

Before making a final decision, Suter managed to bump up her start-up package by negotiating for another $100,000 from a pot of state money for computational biology. Then, satisfied that she had done the best she could, she accepted the job in June 2006, packed up, and headed west, primed to take the next step in her academic career.
Within weeks of her arrival, however, she found herself instead hurtling down an academic rabbit hole, as her start-up funds were diverted and her research plans delayed. Last summer, after exhausting other options, Suter hit bottom: She sued the university and six UTSA administrators and professors. She claims in her suit that the university failed to honor its commitment to support her research in a timely fashion and that two other male faculty members who arrived after her received money earmarked for her start-up package.

Good. I hope she wins.

Universities need to receive a little brush-back pitching on this issue. And it goes far, far beyond sex-discrimination that appears to be the part of this that is likely to get traction.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times. If there is one singular issue, one, that dominates newly-hired Assistant Professor dissatisfaction with their new workplace it is the University reneging on promises apparently made during negotiations.

This why I tell all of those on the job market that they need to get *everything* in writing and not just from the Chair of the Department either. It has to be signed by the Dean or Vice Provost or ViceWhatnot that has the ultimate authority.

Otherwise, things have a way of magically disappearing on you. That lab space? Oh, that’s actually “shared space”. Nice big pool of cash? Did we mention we’re going to subtract your office furniture from that? and you have to pay for your phone line…and internet! Even worse are the crocodile tears expressed by the Chair when he has to report “well, the Dean didn’t go for it. He promised me! What can I do, my hands are tied..

Look, it doesn’t happen everywhere. Sometimes (most of the time?) everything works out great. But when push comes to shove, the University knows that they have you over a barrel and there really isn’t much you can do about it.

And we all know that in this day and age this stuff has major consequences. A few extra 10s of thousands of dollars can mean the difference between being able to generate the data to secure that NIH grant or not. It can be the difference between successful launch and dismal failure.

It is the responsibility of the candidate to make a deal for herself that is going to maximize her chances of making it to tenure and beyond. She may be fielding multiple offers and is taking each University at their word that they will provide what they are promising. It is likewise the minimum responsibility of the University to actually follow through.

I hope Suter wins her case. And that other Universities pay attention and stop reneging on their promises.

No Responses Yet to “This is not just about sex-discrimination in science”

  1. Zen Faulkes Says:

    What’s astonishing about this case is that she’s not asking for any money from her institution. Just an apology. Which would cost the university nothing. NOTHING.

    I sooooooooooooooo hope she wins. Because fighting in court instead of saying “I’m sorry” is pretty much a dick move.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Yes but from the Uni perspective, don’t you think that just opens the door to the next lawsuit which does ask for financial redress, Zen?

    I bet they fight it all the way…


  3. Zen Faulkes Says:

    I think you’re right: they’ll fight tooth and claw to the end.


  4. Dr Becca Says:

    These kinds of stories keep me up at night. The specifics of my startup funds are pretty detailed in my offer letter from NJU, so I’m hoping I’ve done a good enough job of getting it all in writing. Still, people will always find ways of creating loopholes. Good luck to Dr. Suter!


  5. anon Says:

    I’m glad you blogged about this, and I also hope she wins. I made a terrible mistake by not getting *everything* in writing for my own asst prof position. However, some other new TT faculty I’ve spoken to also said that they wanted to come across as cooperative and agreeable colleagues and gave in to verbal promises. Where can the line be drawn here?

    The other issue is that I give Dr. Suter a lot of credit for having the guts to go through with this. If she loses, lets say for a technical reason, do you think there will be any repercussions on her career? Or even if she wins? Will people misinterpret her actions and regard her as a female trouble maker? Akin to a whistleblower – I hope I am making sense. I think it’s a common fear (including my own) that people would have in her position that would normally prevent them from going ahead with this.


  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    Well, Suter sure isn’t making friends at her current University and gee, how do you think the next University is going to look upon her as a potential recruit?


  7. Physician Scientist Says:

    I hope she wins and agree that the universities need a brush-back pitch on this, but man….moving over 1500 miles to a fledgling university for a mere $330,000 startup?


  8. D. C. Sessions Says:

    However, some other new TT faculty I’ve spoken to also said that they wanted to come across as cooperative and agreeable colleagues and gave in to verbal promises. Where can the line be drawn here?

    If someone won’t put an agreement over anything more serious than a good dinner and a movie in writing, you have to ask yourself, “why?” I certainly wouldn’t buy a freaking used car without paperwork covering the deal, and you think I would bet years of my life and potentially my career on trusting an oral offer concerning a six-figure sum?

    If putting all that in writing is so much trouble, save them the bother. Write it up yourself and all they need to do is get the appropriate signature. If they can’t even be bothered to sign on what they’d already agreed to, well, they must have a good reason. Right?


  9. Ed Says:

    My answer to Anon is that it is all part of the bargaining process, not separate. Demanding everything in writing is like any other demand. Demand too much and they might decide it’s not worth it.

    So yes if you demand stuff in writing you have to give up a little bit elsewhere. But you get more. You have to decide if you are getting the best demand for your buck by demanding things in writing. Whether it is marriage, jobs, renting an apt, whatever, similar dynamics.


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    Um, people decide not to get married if the pre-nuptial contract isn’t good enough? Really?


  11. D. C. Sessions Says:

    Um, people decide not to get married if the pre-nuptial contract isn’t good enough? Really?

    Yes, really.

    Why would this be surprising? Imagine in the simplest example, a couple contemplating matrimony, each with children. Is it really so hard to believe that one would feel so strong a sense of obligation to one’s own children that preserving their inheritance is non-negotiable?


  12. anon Says:

    “Well, Suter sure isn’t making friends at her current University and gee, how do you think the next University is going to look upon her as a potential recruit?”

    DM, this is my point. There are clearly people at her current University who are NOT her friends (even before she took action). I think in many cases, departments have reneged on new hires because they can, and they can get away with it for these reasons.


  13. whimple Says:

    She’s being silly. Her career is doing fine; she should just go with that.


  14. neurowoman Says:

    It’s one thing for universities and departments to fail in providing promised support, when monies dry up, deans fail to deliver, states cut funding, etc. It’s quite another for them to give support to the next hire(s) while failing you, and then to tell you to just suck it up. Especially when those other hires are less qualified in terms of publications and funding success; is it incidental that they are men, and connected to senior people in the department (boy’s network)? Not sure, but it sure is galling.

    I was appalled to read that contract law does not apply to written job offers when it involves state entities that “cannot be sued”? That would render most written offers pretty moot in case of dispute.


  15. Alex Says:

    Whimple has a valid point, in that it would arguably be unreasonable for her to demand the funds at this point. At some point, one should let go–if somebody got screwed on a start-up 15 years ago, should they be in line ahead of a n00b the next time that funds are available?

    OTOH, she isn’t demanding the money. She isn’t demanding to be in line ahead of whoever their latest hire is. She’s just fighting this on principle, and the next person hired will benefit from her actions. So she’s striking exactly the right balance here.


  16. Any civil lawsuit that seeks nothing more than an “apology” from a defendant will be immediately thrown out by the court.


  17. Alex Says:

    Admittedly, I don’t have as much legal training as the esteemed professor of physiology, but, from TFA:

    Suter isn’t asking for any money. Instead, she wants the university to apologize for its actions. She says her experience is a cautionary tale for other young academic scientists: “The last 5 years of my life have been a nightmare. And I will not in any way give the impression that this is acceptable.”

    She started the suit last summer. It has not yet been thrown out. Even if it is thrown out at some point, I don’t know that that qualifies as “immediately.”

    My guess is that she wants more than just a piece of paper with “I’m sorry” written on it. Probably some sort of concession or guarantee regarding how things are done in the future. I know that lawsuits have been filed (and won) with verdicts that required organizations to change practices in the future.


  18. whimple Says:

    Or she may be suing for money but would agree to dismiss in exchange for a public apology. Either way this is a lose-lose scenario for her.


  19. anon Says:

    whimple, it could be a “lose-lose” for her, but she is taking the hit for the rest of us. I experienced something similar in my TT position as a noob, with no other funding. It was devastating. I am sure there are others – enough that motivated DM to comment on it in the first place.


  20. A Says:

    Dr. Suter has participated in the Science Careers Forum for years and eventually became a formal advisor.

    She has been commenting on her case.


  21. becca Says:

    “She’s being silly. Her career is doing fine; she should just go with that.”
    No. If it were obvious she were in this just for personal gain (e.g. she wanted money plus damages for emotional distress), you might have a point. But she is doing this at least in part to make sure the university (and, hopefully, other universities and perhaps other workplaces generally) know they cannot get away with this. She says ” I am trying to create a change in the vulnerability of young scientists.” Which would be a spetacularly good thing, although assistant TT profs are not necessarily the worst off*. Sometimes getting the pants sued off of them is the only thing that makes universities behave fairly.

    *From my totally biased perspective it appears that adjuncts are the most vulnerable/exploited, then postdocs, then grad students, then pre-tenure profs, then undergrads, then deans, then tenured profs; but there are different risks and protections at each stage, and institutions differ so much that it’s tricky to get a handle on.


  22. Alex Says:

    From my totally biased perspective it appears that adjuncts are the most vulnerable/exploited

    +1. This. Like.


  23. drugmonkey Says:

    Whoa, whoa becca. I don’t believe I said anything about exploitation…


  24. Guess Says:

    I hope, as well, she wins.


  25. becca Says:

    Expecting people to work without the resources or compensation you promised is exploitative.


  26. whimple Says:

    And expecting them to succeed without the resources you promised is stupid.


  27. kelly suter Says:

    I thank those of you who have been supportive. There are many aspects of the academic “culture” that would be un-acceptable in any other professional environment. This includes behvaior not only of administrators but also of faculty.

    In my view, they broke our deal, all of it in writing and signed by the Dean. I am not the first assistant professor at my institution whose career has been damaged by the failure to honor recruitment promises. However, I managed to salvage based on my experinece as a post-doc. They have not.

    I do not see this as lose-lose. That is the traditional academic fear tactic used to silence people. In opening the discussion, I (we; trainees and assistant professor) have already won. I hope every single institution will go have another think about what they offered during recruitment. Second, as for other institutions not wanting to hire me: an honest institution that meets its obligations has nothing to fear. In fact, I would think an institution would want an investigator that holds so firmly to stewardship. Remember they transferred 2 Federal grants based on a start-up package they knew before they made the offer and at the time of singing off on the transfer they weren’t going to give me.

    My lawsuit is about those 2 issues, core professional values.


  28. Andrea Says:

    Thanks Kelly and good for you. I totally hope and trust you win.


  29. drugmonkey Says:

    I admire you for taking this on and I do hope you don’t suffer addition professional price for it, Professor Suter. Lying to the NIH about Institutional support is indeed a very interesting line of attack. More than one University could stand to get a little chin music on this as well.


  30. pinus Says:

    Good luck Professor Suter. Too many universities screw with new hires in these ways.


  31. kelly suter Says:


    You wrote my career is doing fine and I should just go with it.

    You have no idea how difficult it was to do that particularly in a “fledgling” (thanks for your tact PhySci and for giving me some polite wording). Moreover, that fact that I worked my butt off for three years so that they could, in essence, subsidize their faculty recruitment on my back is in no way acceptable. Finally, my goal wasn’t to work my butt off to survive (the situation they knowingly created). Iit was to move forward, not dig out. What a waste of my time and energy for other’s needs.


  32. Andrea Says:

    Yes Kelly!. You are creating a sane precedent, as opposed to the insane ones most of us have created through the years, and I applaud you for that. Thank you for being so brave.


  33. Eli Rabett Says:

    Remember they transferred 2 Federal grants based on a start-up package they knew before they made the offer and at the time of singing off on the transfer they weren’t going to give me.

    That raises all sorts of OMB like auditing questions. It would be devastating to the University but an Inspector General inquiry is the hammer in this one and it has been unsheathed.


  34. Pinko Punko Says:

    Agreed as usual with the Rabett. And am a bad person because was happy that the hard-hearted whimple has been spanked on this particular issue.


  35. Saffron Mercke Says:

    This really would have been braver if she had filed the lawsuit BEFORE getting tenure. This is my assertion in the current academic marketplace. Tenure should be abolished because all faculty are so scared of not getting it that they just stay under the radar till they get tenure and then start giving all administrators and colleagues hell. Not saying all of them do it, but I have been a research administrator at a T1 school and I ultimately left to move to work in the private research industry where even the diva researchers and less divaish than the faculty.


  36. kelly suter Says:

    The lawsuit was filed in July 2010. My tenure application went in September 2010. Thus, not only did I file before getting tenure, I filed the very year I was going up for tenure. There was no way I was going to follow the path of hiding behind ANYTHING including tenure. What has happened to me was wrong; right doesn’t hide, right stands up, fully, relentlessly.

    I heard about this person who changed the world by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama. She didn’t have tenure, she didn’t even have non-discriminatory law in place to protect her. If she could stand up, considering the consequences she could have very likely faced at that time in the south, then we all can.

    We are scholars. We have a responsibility to stand up. I consider standing up and speaking out the principle role of scholars in our society, our full measure.


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