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Lawsuit: Penn denied prof tenure for taking child-care leave

A former history professor at the University of Pennsylvania is suing the school, claiming she was denied tenure because she took time off to have and care for her children.

Kristen Stromberg Childers, who taught at the Ivy League college from 2002 until 2010, contends in the federal discrimination lawsuit that her family-leave periods were the "determinative and motivating factors in the decision to deny tenure."

Childers took maternity leave during the 2003-2004 and 2007-2008 academic years for the births of her two children; she also took half-time, half-pay family leave in the 2008-2009 school year due to medical and educational issues her older child was having, the suit says.

She was denied tenure in February 2008 and again after submitting a new application in 2010.

Childers filed a grievance, and a panel in May 2011 found that the review process unfairly considered statements about the assistant professor's child-care leave in making its decision.

According to the lawsuit, the grievance panel found that the chairwoman of Penn's School of Arts and Sciences' personnel committee "inappropriately" wrote to the school's dean that "committee members found it especially hard to judge productivity in light of Dr. Stromberg Childers' family leave time and her junior leave." The dean later said in a letter that it was "difficult to give a balanced assessment" of the professor's productivity "because of the amount of family leave she has had [...]."

The panel recommended her tenure application be reevaluated, with the references to Childers' family leave time redacted from the file. The university provost's office agreed to reconsider the case but rejected the reasoning for the review, "effectively prejudging and predetermining the outcome of the evaluation," according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

The provost's office reaffirmed the denial of tenure in June 2011.

A Penn spokesman said it was the university's policy to not comment on pending litigation.

The suit contends that Penn's history department, as well as a personnel committee and external evaluators, supported Childers' tenure application.

"The absence of an explanation for the tenure denial, along with enthusiastic recommendations from experts in her field, suggest that Dr. Childers is a victim of bias against mothers," Ron Surkin, an attorney for the professor, said in a statement. "Even though her leave was university-approved, she was marked as a woman who did not put a priority on her career."