Professor confronts University spousal discrimination

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Illustration by Michelle Phillips

 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - 11:48am

A University of Michigan faculty member in the School of Art & Design said she was the subject of discrimination based on her gender and status as a spousal hire throughout the process of consideration for promoting her from associate to full professor in 2016. A University grievance board investigating Associate Prof. Rebekah Modrak's claims has concluded the promotion process was unfair, and it identified a "climate of bias toward members of the Dual Career Program" in the Art & Design School.

Though Modrak, the spouse of Art & Design Prof. Nick Tobier, is not currently pressing charges, Sarah Prescott, her attorney, says it's an option they will pursue should the University fail to address their claims.

"We have a lot of affection for the University, and we want it to do the right thing without having to be forced," Prescott said. "So that's something that's definitely an option to go forward. It's something that we've really stepped back from, and we're trying to exhaust any other opportunities or avenues first. The answer is not yet."

Modrak would likely bring the suit under the Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, which prohibits discrimination based on “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status,” in employment and education, among other areas.

Modrak was hired through the University's Dual Career Program, which is managed by the Office of the Provost. The program is mainly used as a recruiting tool for faculty, providing spouses of faculty members an inside track for the hiring process themselves.

"Having long recognized dual career partner assistance as a crucial element in recruiting and retaining its excellent faculty, the University of Michigan has developed one of the strongest dual career programs in the country," the Office of the Provost's website reads.

However, some don't share the Office's opinion. According to a statement from Modrak corroborated by a signed affidavit from a colleague, Art & Design Prof. Holly Hughes, at a 2012 meeting regarding the dual-career hiring of a woman to associate professor, said the woman "should be embarrassed" to be a spousal hire.

When Hughes was later placed on the committee reviewing Modrak's case for promotion by Art & Design Dean Gunalan Nadarajan, Modrak raised concerns with Nadarajan about Hughes's ability to remain unbiased in reviewing her case. Nadarajan, whose wife, Irina Aristarkhova, was the associate professor Hughes said should be embarrassed to be a spousal hire, did not find merit with Modrak's concerns, and Hughes remained on the committee.

Modrak's case closely mirrors the case of Profs. Scott Kurashige and Emily Lawsin, in which they claim the University retaliated against their attempts to report discrimination based on their marriage and race.

Though Nadarajan encouraged her to apply for promotion and promised to support her promotion, according to Modrak, he did not keep his promise, and in fact identified one of the external reviewers as unsupportive of Modrak's promotion, despite the reviewer's insistence otherwise. Furthermore, the promotion committee removed Modrak's book "Reframing Photography: Theory and Practice" from consideration in her promotion based on the fact that they had already considered it during her tenure promotion in 2007 –– even though the book wasn't completed until 2010.

The aforementioned external reviewer Steven McCarthy, a professor of graphic design at the University of Minnesota, wrote in a signed affidavit he found the removal highly unusual.

"I was surprised to later learn that Prof. Modrak’s important contribution, her book Reframing Photography: Theory and Practice, was not considered in favor of promotion at the University of Michigan," he wrote. "Excluding, discounting or otherwise not evaluating a practitioner’s complete body of work in this, the ultimate decision toward career advancement, is to my knowledge unheard of in our field of work."

In the affidavit, McCarthy also confirmed his unequivocal support for Modrak's promotion.

"I concluded that her work did clearly qualify for promotion, and my letter said so," he wrote. "My letter as to Prof. Modrak was not written in code or as mere courtesy; it was my true opinion based on my twenty-eight years as an academic, the national standards in the disciplines of art and design, and norms within R1 research universities."

Modrak said McCarthy's experience was not unique, claiming Nadarajan ignored the advice of every reviewer. Nadarajan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In addition to a grievance committee, Modrak opened a case with the University's Office for Institutional Equity on the denial of her promotion, in which she said she was obstructed.

"The OIE investigator refused to question my witnesses in writing, explaining that she had already determined, before speaking with them, that they would have no relevant information," she said.

In addition to concluding Hughes brought bias into the promotion process, the grievance board found that the OIE investigation was flawed, and that their arguments against Modrak's case were "tenuous and lacked true merit."

Modrak is now seeking recourse and sanctions for Hughes through the Office of the Provost. Bringing her case to Robert Sellers, Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, Modrak said Sellers seemed "concerned but said that he could make no promises."

Modrak's dossier for promotion is to be reviewed this summer by a new Art & Design School committee, still headed by Nadarajan.

When asked for comment, University spokewoman Kim Broekhuizen declined, saying the University "does not comment on personnel matters."