Vanderbilt University lawsuit alleges unequal treatment of female “spousal hires”

By: - May 10, 2022 7:05 am
Kirkland Hall at Vanderbilt University (Photo: John Partipilo)

Kirkland Hall at Vanderbilt University (Photo: John Partipilo)

An assistant professor of art history has filed a $2 million suit against Vanderbilt University, claiming she was denied tenure as a result of the school’s unequal treatment of female “spousal hires,” who are offered a job as part of an employment deal extended to their partners.

Mireille Lee filed suit in Davidson County Chancery Court on Friday alleging the university engaged in unlawful gender discrimination against her in the denial of tenure in both 2015 and 2019, then retaliated her when she complained. Lee joined the faculty in 2008 as a spousal hire when Vanderbilt also offered a job to her husband, Joe Rife, an assistant professor of classics and anthropology.

The legal filing claims that 80% of spousal hires who are male have been granted a promotion or tenure at Vanderbilt, while fewer than 17% of female spousal hires have gotten the same opportunity.

The heavily redacted filing does not cite the source of the data, but — in a motion immediately filed to seal portions of the lawsuit — attorneys for Vanderbilt University note rulings in a separate and ongoing federal court involving Lee have imposed confidentiality requirements. In that case, a federal judge has “held multiple times that Vanderbilt has a substantial interest in keeping its confidential information under seal to protect the confidentiality of its tenure review process.”

Mireille Lee’s suit against Vanderbilt alleges “false representations” were made against her in the process of her seeking a position as a tenured professor.

In a statement sent Tuesday, after publication of this story, a Vanderbilt spokeswoman said the university does not comment on the details of pending litigation.

“Consistent with the university’s core values of equity, diversity and inclusion, the university takes seriously its commitment to nondiscrimination and equal opportunity,” the statement from Vanderbilt said.  Vanderbilt has not yet filed a legal response.

An attorney for Lee did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that Lee was on a tenure track when she was hired, but was denied tenure in 2015 and and 2019. She was an assistant professor in Vanderbilt’s Department of History of Art, with an additional appointment in Classical Mediterranean studies, despite performing in a “competent and satisfactory manner at all times.”

Lee’s research had included four or more scholarly articles, while at least one of her male counterparts — also a spousal hire — was awarded tenure with no articles in peer reviewed publications.

But when she was up for possible promotion in 2015, she was denied after “false representations” were made in the process of seeking opinions from peers in her field, the lawsuit alleges.

The false allegations were “made for the purpose of and with the intent to deliberately discriminate against Lee because of her gender, female,” the lawsuit said. The lawsuit’s redactions seal details about the source of the allegations.

In 2016, Lee filed a grievance with Vanderbilt officials alleging that she had been a victim of discrimination directed at female spousal hires, noting Lee had become a parent while at Vanderbilt and also suffered a major health issue but was denied a “tenure clock extension” to accommodate her time away.

A grievance committee “found merit” to Lee’s claim and recommended she be given additional time for a tenure review to be conducted in 2018.  Vanderbilt’s Chancellor approved the committee’s recommendations, the lawsuit said. Lee was once again denied tenure in 2018.  Lee claims that her interactions with department heads showed she was being retaliated against for filing her grievance.”

“Spousal hires who are male and hired as faculty members by (Vanderbilt) as assistant professors on the tenure track are almost always granted a promotion to associated professor with tenure while spousal hires who are female and are hired by (Vanderbilt) on the tenure track as assistant professors are rarely granted a promotion to associate professor with tenure,” the lawsuit said.

“The disparity in the treatment of such male spousal hires and female spousal hires is the result of intential discrimination against female spousal hires by (Vanderbilt) in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act,” the lawsuit claims.






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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.