Discrimination at UMass — Woman Scientist Fights Back

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Discrimination at UMass — Woman Scientist Fights Back

by George Salzman

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 2, May 1971, p. 18 – 21

When the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts opened in the Fall of 1965, its initial physics faculty was made up of two men and two women, and one of the men was married to one of the women. At the start of her fourth year the wife (of the couple) got notice that “University policy quite clearly prohibits the contemporaneous appointment, within the same department, of close relatives”, and that her appointment would not be renewed after the end of the year, contrary to the physics department’s recommendation.

The author of this manifestly logically compelling reason for severing a woman from the faculty after four years was the Chancellor, the chief administrator on the Boston campus. It was the last day of his three years in office, and this was his parting shot at two faculty members who had endeared themselves to him by their open criticisms of administrative failures and malpractices, a whole series of which led to his early resignation and departure from the campus in the Fall of 1968.

This firing is an unusual one because it is not only clearly unrelated to professional qualifications or to professional performance—there aren’t even any allegations of shortcomings. The sole reason advanced by the Chancellor was the marital relationship, and a supposed desire by him to obey trustee-established policy on employment of relatives, a desire so intense that he was prepared to apply his “strict obedience” ex post facto to the woman faculty member whom the Trustees, in full knowledge of her dual appointment with her husband, had approved.

The Chancellor’s ability to fire the wife rested in turn on the discriminatory nature of her initial appointment. It is quite common in colleges and universities that, as a group, women faculty have less job security than men, not of course “in principle”, but in actual practice. For this reason, and others that will be elaborated on, the administrative practice in this case is related to the problems of discrimination confronting women faculty everywhere.

Freda Salzman and her husband George were recruited in the Spring of 1965 as the two senior faculty in Physics for the Boston campus, she as an Associate Professor 3/4-time and he as a tenured Professor—luckily for him. There was also one Assistant Professor and one Visiting Assistant Professor, the latter living in Boston for only one year, who then returned to her home institution. Freda and George each came with a dozen years of post-doctoral experience, she having received her degree several months before he received his.

The offer made to them reflected a general reluctance on the part of the President, the top administrator under the Trustees, to have couples within departments, but a willingness to accept a limited number of such appointments in cases where particularly qualified couples were involved. Still, he wished to avoid, whenever possible, tenured couples within departments 1, the rationale presumably being that if the family relationship proved detrimental to the welfare of a department, it would be easier to rectify the situation if the couple were not tenured. The problem with this wish of the President was that it conflicted with another of his wishes, namely to make believe that the university adhered to the guideline of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) on tenure, which says simply that no full-time faculty member can be kept untenured for more than seven years.

The administration “solved” that problem by an arrangement, which is still used, in which one member of the couple (invariably the wife) is appointed to a part-time position. That way the President avoids a tenured couple within a departmant, the couple can look forward to long-term appointments at the University, and the letter of the AAUP guideline is not violated, only its spirit. For obviously it is meant to apply to faculty whose primary professional committment is to the college or university, but not to a practicing professional (e.g. a surgeon) whose regular appointment is elsewhere and who may lecture an hour or two a week at the university.

The Salzmans, when recruited, were told that there were a number of such husband-wife teams at the University, that the part-time position for the wife was the normal way in which they made such appointments, and that the arrangement had proved entirely satisfactory for all concerned. While they fully expected the first few years at a new campus to be hectic and frustrating, they did not anticipate the intense internal struggles or the numerous firings that were to occur, and they accepted the offer, at the same time declining an offer of dual tenure from a large urban campus of a major midwestern state university in order to remain in the lively physics environment of the Boston area, and to take part in building the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts.

Needless to say, we (for it is I, the husband who is writing this) were inexcusably naive in believing the administrators would behave decently, and that an understanding between those who hired us and ourselves, even though not initially committed to paper 2, would be honored by succeeding administrators. Instead, once the Boston campus administrators decided that we were “troublesome” and that they would have “smoother administrative sailing” without us, they hesitated not at all to breach the initial understanding and to try to drive us both out. Their major blow was to deprive Freda of her position, but other forms of harassment were also employed.

The struggle to retain Freda on the faculty began in the summer of 1967, when the Chancellor’s intentions first became apparent through a memorandum stating “his interpretation of Trustee policy on close relatives” and signalling his intention to “tighten up” enforcement. In the Spring of 1968 the physics department, forewarned of the administration’s changing position, took pains to prepare a particularly strong recommendation for her reappointment for the 1969-1970 year, and solicited letters of reference from a number of prominent physicists, among them several Nobel laureates, to support its recommendation. This recommendation was rejected in the letter stating, “University policy quite clearly prohibits…”, referred to in the opening paragraph.

Clearly the truth content of the Chancellor’s “reason” for rejection is the same as that of Ronald Reagan’s assertion that the California Board of Regents rejected renewal of Angela Davis’ appointment because she was a poor teacher. At the University of Massachusetts, university policy is established by the actions of the Board of Trustees, and, in the matter of employment of relatives, these actions are such as to allow latitude to administrators. In fact, this year there is a couple holding “contemporaneous appointment[s], within the same department” on the Boston campus, additional evidence of the falsity of the alleged prohibition, and also evidence of the readiness of the administration to apply the supposed rule for selective punishment.

As already noted, the first Chancellor wrote his non-reappointment letter on his last day in office. Following his departure, the office remained vacant for one month, and then, in October 1968, his successor appeared on the scene. The physics department repeatedly asked him to reverse the previous Chancellor’s action. But he, like his predecessor, apparently believes that any criticism of administrative actions is harmful to the University, and for almost two and a half years he has adamantly refused to reverse what he terms a “legitimate discretionary judgment” of his predecessor.

In December of 1970 the Tenure and Grievance Committee for the Boston campus, a committee of tenured faculty elected by the Faculty Senate, to which the case had been taken by the physics department and by Freda and me, issued its findings—unequivocally supporting the plaintiffs and recommending Freda’s reappointment as soon as possible. The Chancellor rejected that too, and in early March the faculty voted its support for the Tenure and Grievance Committee and for the Department of Physics in a strongly worded resolution. At this time (early March) the three-end-a-half-year-old struggle is still in progress.

While the kind of discriminatory hiring practice under which Freda was appointed is clearly bad for women faculty so employed, it is also harmful to the climate of intellectual independence at the university because it establishes a category of (female) faculty who are denied the possibility of attaining the formal job security that tenure offers. The discharge of untenured faculty for reasons unrelated to their professional performance is an obvious technique for intimidating all untenured faculty. In general, the ratio of untenured to tenured appointments is much larger for women than for men. Those women who are employed in part-time appointments, or in other “special” categories which deny them their full faculty rights, are often also exploited through their “non-eligibility” for retirement benefits, sabbatical leaves of absence, and other “fringe benefits”. As a result, they quite often “tend to their teaching” and remain largely silent in the struggles that occur within their institutions for fear that entry into the controversies may cost them their jobs. The results of such discriminatory hiring practices are clearly harmful, and not only to the women faculty, for self-criticism is crucial to colleges. and universities, and faculty who are afraid to engage in it serve the institution as little more than hired teachers.

In institutions with a large proportion of untenured faculty the exercise of academic freedom can be quite effectively stifled by even a few examples of firings by arbitrary administrative actions. Such actions should thus be of concern not only to women faculty, but to all faculty, and to all students. The vitality of the intellectual life of the institution is itself at stake.

For women students there is a special concern. If they are to flourish to the full extent of their individual potentialities, then they must not be prevented by a male chauvinist society from encountering women who are complete persons. They must come into contact with women who have decided on difficult careers—such as physics—and who have been successful—as a matter of course, not as anomalies. One of the most effective means for keeping people suppressed is by robbing them of their aspirations, and one of the ways of achieving this is by denying them examples of people like themselves who have succeeded.

For example, a young woman who harbors a desire to become a classical composer may very well doubt the possibility if the only examples of famous classical composers she can think of are all men, and if she has never even encountered a woman composer. Likewise a young woman who would like to become a physicist may be able to think only of Marie Curie as an example, clearly an anomaly in the world of physics greats, and if she is denied the opportunity to encounter ordinary real women who have become good physicists, she may easily give up the dream as being beyond reach. Obviously, successful examples in all fields of endeavor are not less important for women than for blacks, Puerto Ricans, or any of the other suppressed groups within our society.

In fact, Freda’s decision to become a physicist was in no small part influenced by her first-hand exposure to a real live woman physicist. Here in brief is the story. Freda Friedman was born in Brooklyn just in time to enjoy her early childhood during the great depression. She attended elementary and high school in Brooklyn, then got a job and attended Brooklyn College at night for a half year. After spending the next year away, working and saving, she returned to Brooklyn and enrolled as a full-time day student at Brooklyn College, tutoring, babysitting, and working summers, eager to continue her formal studies. Mathematics and physics particularly intrigued her. At college she met another similarly intrigued student, me, and changed her last name to mine, a practice that clearly reflects the male-supremacist nature of most contemporary societies.

Both Freda and I were strongly influenced by Melba Phillips, who was then on the physics faculty of Brooklyn College, and was acclaimed by the self-recognized authorities—the physics majors—as one of the most outstanding physicists there. A student of Oppenheimer’s who even had a process named after her—the Oppenheimer-Phillips process—a woman, a thoroughly cosmopolitan and generous person, a fine but utterly unpolished teacher whose lectures were in her head (and which she occasionally had trouble arranging in an orderly fashion as they came out), she was devoid of pomp, though not, it seems to me, of a gentle form of gamesmanship. Sometimes she would copy the details of generating functions for Laguerre and other polynomials needed for her day’s lecture from her New York Times, where she had scratched them during her morning subway ride from Greenwich Village to Brooklyn College. She was in fact a model for a woman who wanted to be a real person, and who liked physics.

Melba Phillips was also a radical person. 3 For example, once in her class in mathematical physics, she even waking minute calculating atomic wave functions. Becoming a physicist didn’t imply that one had to become a drudge. One could still be aware of life, and could pursue a broad range of interests. Of course one did have to learn how to calculate those functions.

Anyway, Melba steered us out to the University of Illinois for graduate studies, where, she correctly assured us there were two very fine physicists—and nice guys—Sidney Dancoff and Arnold Nordsieck—from whom there was a lot to learn. So we packed our one-room attic apartment into twenty-eight cardboard cartons, and got on a Trailways bus—with the cartons—it was the cheapest way to move—for Urbana, Illinois. Urbana, Illinois is as Urbana as Paris, Illinois is Paris. But that was O.K. There were no distractions—only the sound of corn growing in early June.

At Illinois we found a large and congenial physics department of men, presided over by stern father-figure F. Wheeler Loomis. The departmental practice was generally, though not strictly, one of supporting men graduate students in preference to women graduate students, on the basis of the demonstrable fact that most of the women got married and did not complete their degrees, and were thus a poor investment, statistically, compared to the men graduate students. I had a teaching-assistantship the first year, and Freda had me. We arrived a few weeks before the beginning of the Fall (1949) semester, and got right to work studying for the Pre-preliminary (yes, that’s right) examination in optics, to be offered in another month-and-a-half or two. So it began.

Actually there was some instruction by a woman physicist at Illinois. Occasionally, when Maurice Goldhaber couldn’t get to one of his lectures in nuclear physics, his wife Gertrude would conduct the class in his place. And she did a fine job, although I believe it is true that she did not, as Maurice did, know from memory every single isotope of every element and the spin and parity and energy and lifetimes and half widths and decay modes and probabilities for every excited state of every isotope. Neither did any of the other physics faculty. But it was their good fortune that they were not married to Maurice, and therefore they were, unlike Gertrude, eligible to be on the faculty. We were told that the anti-relative practice at the University of Illinois was a carry-over from the depression.

We also once heard a colloquium in Urbana by Maria Goeppert Mayer on nuclear shell structure-before she got the Nobel Prize for that work. At that time, her husband Joseph was a Chemistry Professor at the University of Chicago, and so of course—you guessed it! Subsequently the Goldhabers went from Illinois to the Atlantic (Brookhaven) and the Mayers from Illinois to the Pacific (La Jolla). So there were a few female physicists with whom we made at least slight contact at graduate school.

Oh, yes. At Brooklyn College there was also a young and very good solid state theorist, Esther Conwell. She advised Freda, quite sensibly it must be admitted in retrospect, not to marry a physicist.

Discrimination against women will not be done away with overnight because it is an integral part of the means by which society exploits the non-dominant classes within the population. It would be useful to document the extent of various discriminatory practices in different colleges and universities. If you are at an institution of “higher” education, you can start by getting the breakdown into male and female of the following categories: full-time tenured faculty; full-time untenured faculty; part-time faculty (usually all untenured). Of course, the ranks, teaching responsibilities, and salaries of the people in these categories are also important data to know.

When the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts opened in the Fall of 1965, its initial physics faculty was made up of two men and two women. Four years later the faculty consisted of thirteen men. This Spring Freda Salzman is teaching a course in relativity theory, which she offered to give, and which the physics department then invited her to give. The students get no credit. She gets no credit. Soon, with continued support from colleagues, students, and friends, she will probably succeed in regaining the position from which she was unjustly severed. But she is only one of the many academic women who are getting short shrift from academia as it is now organized and run.

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  1. Occasionally tenured faculty members got married, and there wasn’t much the president could do about that. In his words “both are permitted to continue in the positions they occupied prior to marriage”, showing clearly that he thought it was a privilege he gave them, not their right.
  2. Subsequently, written agreement on the nature of the understanding between ourselves and the administrator who recruited us was obtained, but he has also indicated his belief that the university is not “legally” bound to adhere to it, and that it is his understanding that any non-tenured faculty member can be fired without any reason being given.
  3. In the early 1950s, during the McCarthy era, she was subpoenaed for questioning by the McCarran Committee and, as a result of her refusal to cooperate with the committee, was dismissed from Brooklyn College, much to its misfortune. She is now on the faculty of the University of Chicago.