Disability Led to Tenure Denial at City College, Lawsuit Claims
Posted March 5, 2018 9:23 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — When the City College of New York hired Lynda G. Dodd almost a decade ago to help lead a new undergraduate program, underwritten by the Skadden Arps law firm, to promote diversity in the legal profession, it hailed her as “head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates.”
But Dodd, who has degrees from Princeton and Yale, was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and she was denied early tenure after concerns arose over the pace of her scholarly output. Now, Dodd, who has established a national reputation researching remedies for civil rights violations, contends that her own rights have been violated, and she has filed a lawsuit charging retaliation prohibited by disability discrimination laws.
At many colleges, the tenure process can be fraught, shaped by competing egos and academic infighting. But the process is usually closely held, making Dodd’s lawsuit a rare instance in which private grievances are being aired in the public domain.
Filed in late December in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, the lawsuit comes at a turbulent time for City College, in Harlem, as well as its parent institution, the City University of New York.
Lisa S. Coico, the college’s former president, has been under federal investigation by the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District. Her replacement, Vincent G. Boudreau, was named permanent president in December, but only after overcoming objections from neighborhood activists and politicians. But Dodd claims that Boudreau, a political scientist, has played a key adversarial role, and is now the college’s final arbiter, as president, of her future at City College.
CUNY is searching for a new chancellor after James B. Milliken unexpectedly announced that he would step down at the end of the academic year.
A CUNY spokesman declined to comment, citing the litigation. The state attorney general’s office, which is defending the university, is scheduled to respond by Wednesday.
Neither Dodd nor her lawyer, Anne L. Clark, with the employment law firm of Vladeck, Raskin & Clark, would comment.
But in an unusual display of support, 50 political scientists who focus on law and courts wrote to Boudreau and Milliken, praising Dodd’s work and calling the tenure decision “a manifest injustice.”
“The reaction I got was — you’ve got to be kidding,” said Charles R. Epp, a University of Kansas professor who spoke at City College forum in 2012, and helped organize the letter-writing effort. “She writes as if she’s a much more senior scholar, and her contribution is equal to that of many senior scholars.”
Dodd, 49, has a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton, and a law degree from Yale. After serving as a law professor at American University, she came to City College in 2010 to bolster a new, high-profile program, the Skadden Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies, to help prepare more students from underrepresented backgrounds for legal careers.
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom contributed $9.6 million, and Dodd received a higher-than-usual salary as the Joseph H. Flom Professor of Legal Studies. But, in an unusual move for named professorships, the position was not automatically tenured.
A Skadden spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment. But some former students hold her in high esteem.
“She was regarded as a tough professor, but fair,” said Joel Sati, 24, who is now pursuing a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley and a law degree at Yale. “You know ‘The Paper Chase’? Kind of like Kingsfield, but a much lighter version.”
But Dodd experienced numerous health setbacks after 2010, as her progressive “M.S. symptoms worsened, including declining mobility, extreme fatigue, and a severe form of pain,” her lawsuit claimed.
Yet “her efforts to obtain a reasonable accommodation of additional time to complete her research were met with hostility and obstruction,” the suit said.
Part of the complaint involves Dodd’s need to win reappointment annually to the Flom professorship. In at least two years, while senior college officials voiced concerns that she did not meet the “high standards” for “research production” and was “taking forever” to produce books and articles, she kept her position by appealing successfully to Coico, then the president, according to the complaint.
By early 2017, after Boudreau had become interim president, the complaint said, Dodd believed that she had met the criteria for tenure, two years earlier than scheduled, citing a book contract with Cambridge University Press and other works. But her political science department voted against her in October. Dodd then notified CUNY that she would sue.
Given the importance of the Skadden program, several people affiliated with City College, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the litigation, said that Dodd may not have lived up to expectations. Others suggested that the college had legitimate concerns, and cautioned that her case may be more complicated than the complaint suggests.
Rogers M. Smith, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is the president-elect of the American Political Science Association, said that he took seriously the issue of productivity. But Smith, who tried unsuccessfully to recruit Dodd to Yale for graduate school when he taught there in the 1990s, said that he didn’t think there was an issue with her productivity, given her medical issues and the fact that she had taken parental leave. “I think very highly of her as a scholar, and I would need to be persuaded that those concerns have legitimacy,” he said.