Lawsuit claims UT refused tenure to professor because of pregnancy

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a lawsuit filed Sept. 9, attorneys for Evdokia Nikolova, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at University of Texas in Austin, claim that the university denied her tenure because of time missed during pregnancy.

“UT Austin treated Dr. Nikolova differently, requiring her to meet a higher standard than male faculty members, as well as female faculty members who did not become pregnant during their pre-tenure review period of employment at UT Austin,” the suit states.

Prior to being recruited by the University of Texas, Nikolova had prior experience as assistant professor at Texas A&M. The suit claims the ECE Department Chair told Nikolova that her prior experience would count towards her tenure review period and she would be able to go up for tenure on a normal tenure time clock, which would begin in the fall of 2011.

In the 2015-16 academic year, Nikolova took “probationary extension” and “modified instructional duty;” policy exceptions at UT which are designed to give new parents an extension in order to complete their tenure review periods. According to the suit, UT tells faculty that taking either the probationary extension or the modified instructional duty will have no negative impact for the tenure review process.

Per the suit, UT considered Nikolova for tenure in the 2018-19 academic year, her eighth year as an assistant professor. She had completed seven academic years as an assistant professor—four and a half at UT and two and a half at Texas A&M.

Nikolova received an almost unanimous vote in favor for tenure from UT Ausin’s ECE Department and reports that describe her as an outstanding professor, the suit claims.

Her lawyer also lays out the research accomplishments achieved by Nikolova, quoting the ECE Department’s own finding:

Assistant Professor Evdokia Nikolova leads a world-class research program . . . Dr. Nikolova has made foundational contributions in understanding the resulting equilibria, with important implications in many areas, e.g., the design of road tolls. She has a solid publication record, with 30 conference papers and 4 journal papers. Her work has received high recognition in academia (e.g., NSF CAREER Award 2014) and industry (e.g., Google Faculty Research Award 2013). Dr. Nikolova’s research accomplishments clearly support her promotion to Associate Professor with tenure. Her publications and awards amply demonstrate that she is deserving of promotion.

The document continues stating the large number of letters from scholars in her field supporting Nikolova’s tenure and a letter of support from Professor Manuel Blum, one of the most influential computer scientists in the world and winner of the Turing Award, which is considered “the Nobel Prize for computer.”

After a tenure candidate is reviewed by their individual department the assistant professor is then considered for tenure by a faculty committee which represents the school. The suit states that the committee unanimously voted in favor of tenure for Nikolova.

According to Nikolova’s attorney, UT’s Dean of the School of Engineering recommended against tenure citing “early promotion.” The suit claims to quote a written assessment from the Dean, “[i]f this were an up-or-out case, I would likely agree with the recommendation fo the Promotion of Tenure committee. However, Dr. Nikolova is being considered for promotion at UT Austin two years early.”

The suit claims calling the promotion “early” was based in part on Nikolova’s probationary extension and the modified instructional duty for her pregnancy, which was not supposed to be used against her during the tenure review period.

Her lawyer writes that Nikolova received notification from UT President Gregory Fenves that her application for tenure would not be approved.

The suit alleges that a more lenient standard was used to approve two male professors and at least one female professor for tenure. The document continues that Nikolova was the only female assistant professor who was pregnant, pointing out that other female applicants who were not pregnant were given tenure.

The suit lists damages but does not request specific amounts.

UT responded to KXAN’s inquiries about the suit, but the school said they typically do not comment on pending litigation.

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