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National faculty association files brief in NSHE gender discrimination lawsuit

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The Nevada Faculty Alliance was joined by the American Association of University Professors this month in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in an appeal of a case against the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents that alleges gender discrimination. 

The lawsuit, brought by Alice Wieland, a former University of Nevada, Reno assistant professor of management, was originally filed in U.S. District Court in Nevada in December 2019. She alleged the university discriminated against her and was in breach of contract after she was denied tenure. 

Despite having received “excellent” and “commendable” ratings in research and service, Wieland said some negative student comments in her teacher evaluations were weighed more heavily in the decision to deny her tenure. 

She pointed to male faculty members with overall student evaluation scores similar to her own but who were rated excellent for tenure. According to Wieland’s appeal, her student evaluation score was 3.3, while the two male professors had scores of 3.1 and 3.4.

District Judge Miranda Du in February issued a summary judgment in favor of NSHE. Du noted that Wieland’s claim “established that no genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether a gender-discriminatory reason more likely than not” led to the denial of tenure. 

Wieland appealed the case this month citing evidence that there’s considerable gender bias against female instructors in student evaluations and that those ratings were unfairly used against her. 

NFA’s board, in a statement about the amici brief, said the District Court ignored compelling evidence and said NSHE’s arguments in the case were “deficient.”

“Ironically, the denial was based in large part on anonymous comments in her student evaluations that were selectively chosen to hurt her tenure application,” NFA’s statement said. “Numerous studies have proven that student evaluations are an inaccurate and discriminatory measure of teaching effectiveness, and most demonstrate there is considerable gender bias against female instructors in student comments.”

NFA also cited another UNR professor who, in a sworn declaration submitted to the court said Wieland’s tenure denial was “…one of the worst cases of bias, vindictiveness, and procedural dysfunction” that he had witnessed in his more than 30 years of service to the university.”

AAUP, in the court brief, cited its own policy statements that “have long emphasized that standards of the profession demand cautious and limited use of student evaluations in assessing instructional quality due to well-documented problems with their reliability and accuracy, including the presence of gender bias.” 

Gender bias is a “pervasive problem” in academics, AAUP also notes, especially in business schools where women are already underrepresented. 

Wieland was an assistant professor in UNR’s business school for seven years teaching courses in managerial sciences. Her research focused on gender impacts in business and entrepreneurship, specifically how women are affected. 

This is the first time NFA has filed in a federal case since it was founded in 1983. Both NFA and the AAUP in 2021 submitted statements of concern after TMCC President Karin Hilgersom tried to have a faculty member fired for “insubordination.” That case is also in federal court.

AAUP, which represents an estimated 43,000 faculty, librarians, graduate students and academic professionals in higher education, regularly files amicus briefs in support of legal issues important to faculty members. 

Its policy briefs have been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts in a number of cases. This Is Reno was unable to reach an NSHE official familiar with the case for comment on the appeal.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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