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Latina ex-CU Boulder professor pursuing EEOC complaint over tenure denial

Terminated assistant professor claims review was unfair, discriminatory

Lupita Montoya, a former assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over her  tenure denial, which she said was on the basis of her race and gender. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)
Lupita Montoya, a former assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over her tenure denial, which she said was on the basis of her race and gender. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the committee that conducted the level two review of former assistant professor Lupita Montoya’s grievance. It also misreported Sheryl Ehrman’s meeting with Montoya. The story has been updated.

As the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences boasts an increase in student and faculty diversity, one former assistant professor has filed a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over her tenure denial.

Lupita Montoya, who holds a doctorate from Stanford University, was denied both tenure and a chance to re-review her application after working in the college’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering since 2010. She claims the denial was based on her identity as a Latina woman, and her peers are left questioning the college’s commitment to diversity.

“When they have a chance to tenure one brown woman, they change the rules,” Montoya said.

On Friday, about 50 students and faculty protested Montoya’s tenure denial on East Campus and called for a change to the university’s tenure review process.

Fighting for tenure

Montoya’s complaint claims her fall 2016 tenure application was treated with bias, saying that the engineering college and former Dean Bobby Braun improperly followed process guidelines, undermined her qualifications and belittled her research by calling it service. Montoya said her white or male colleagues would never have been treated that way.

According to a public records request by the Camera, eight men and two women faculty in the engineering college received tenure between November 2016 and April 2019, as Montoya’s application and appeal were being reviewed. The university declined to break down the tenure recipients by race, citing privacy issues.

In Montoya’s case, the college, Braun and a campus-wide committee all recommended against her tenure application, despite her department supporting it. In May 2017, CU Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano wrote Montoya that she had been denied tenure and issued her a yearlong terminal contract to wrap up her work as a professor.

Montoya filed a grievance with the university’s Privilege and Tenure Committee in June 2017, claiming her review was unfair. The panel, comprised of tenured CU system professors, found several procedural errors in her review that “put her at a serious disadvantage,” according to a July 2018 letter to Montoya, which she provided to the Camera.

Sandra Martin, chair of the committee, wrote “there is sufficient evidence of possible violations of rights and privileges” and that inconsistencies in how Montoya’s case was handled impacts “the university’s goals for inclusion and diversity.” Martin recommended that Montoya be re-evaluated for tenure with a revised application, including new outside evaluation letters and sufficient time for each step of the process to be properly completed. The letter also recommended that her employment as an assistant professor be extended while that process progressed.

Documents show DiStefano declined to allow any re-evaluation. While her contract as an assistant professor ended in May 2018, Montoya still works in the college as a research associate, but her salary for that position is less than half of what it had been in her original position, according to her EEOC complaint.

After Montoya filed that complaint, her grievance was reviewed again by a level two grievance committee. It found that any process errors uncovered in the tenure committee’s investigation did not change the outcome of her application. However, Montoya said the issues raised by the first investigation should not be ignored.

Montoya’s case unfolded as the engineering college launched a strategic plan to increase diversity in its faculty and staff. Her colleagues said her treatment and ultimate termination undercuts the college’s stated commitment to change.

“If (diversity) were truly your goal, you would definitely want Lupita here helping you,” said Angela Bielefeldt, a tenured professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering who reviewed and supported Montoya’s application.

Montoya said she thinks Braun’s opinion of her research damaged her application, despite its alignment with the college’s goals of working with underserved communities.

“(CU Boulder) tells people, parents, professors, that they care about these people, that there’s diversity,” Montoya said. “Yet (my research) is the same thing that they used against me. It is exploitative.”

Braun, who left the engineering college in January for a position with NASA, told the Camera in a statement Montoya’s case was treated fairly and without bias.

“It’s disappointing when a faculty member is not granted tenure – it’s a loss for the university and the candidate,” Braun said. “… I believe diverse backgrounds and experiences are what allow engineers to solve the world’s challenges and, as such, made this a clear part of my leadership agenda.”

‘Unfair’ scrutiny

Tenure applicants are reviewed based on their performance in three areas: teaching, research and service, with reviewers labeling each as excellent, meritorious or below meritorious.

Each tenure application is assigned to primary reviewers who work in the applicant’s department. Montoya’s application was assigned to Professor JoAnn Silverstein and Bielefeldt. In addition to shepherding the application through the review, these people solicit letters from external reviewers who are experts in the applicant’s field. Six letters were submitted for Montoya.

First, the applicant’s department votes on the application. In Montoya’s case, her department voted to approve her application 12-11 in November 2016.

Then, the application is reviewed by a college-wide committee. Montoya’s application was not recommended in this January 2017 vote, which was 1-8.

Next, the college’s dean reviews the application and sends a letter to the campus provost either in favor or against that applicant receiving tenure. Braun did not recommend tenure for Montoya in a March 2017 letter.

At this point, if the college-level vote and the dean disagree with the department’s recommendation, the dean and department chair, in this case Chair Balaji Rajagopalan, must discuss the contradiction and the department must respond in writing. Montoya’s department voted again on her application that March, 14-8 in her favor.

Finally, the application is forwarded to a campus-wide committee for a vote and, based on the prior votes and recommendations, the chancellor makes a decision on tenure. Montoya’s application received a 3-9 vote at this level April 2, and DiStefano did not award tenure.

Silverstein, who previously chaired the department, said it’s unusual for the college to disagree with a department’s tenure recommendation. Of the nearly 30 cases she oversaw as chair, only five of those cases resulted in a disagreement. Of those five, four were women, which she called “not a good sign.”

Bielefeldt and Silverstein attribute part of the negative college-level vote and Braun’s recommendation against tenure to the way Braun characterized five of the external reviewers who wrote letters recommending tenure for Montoya. Braun called the institutions with which the writers were affiliated “less scholarly than the University of Colorado Boulder” in his letter to Provost Russell Moore. There is no criteria for institutional ranking in university tenure review policy.

The tenure committee called that assessment of the five reviewers “unfair at best” in one report Montoya provided to the Camera. It states the college discounted the five positive letters with “no apparent criteria” other than that the letter writers were not from higher-tier institutions and that Braun gave overwhelming weight to the sixth letter, which was negative. The report also asks if the engineering college puts little value on all letters of recommendation from institutions that are lower-ranked than CU Boulder, or if this is “just in Dr. Montoya’s case?”

Silverstein added that it did not make sense that the sixth letter received more weight, saying its writer had lower citation indices, which are used to measure a researcher’s impact, than the other five.

CU Boulder spokeswoman Melanie Parra said Braun reviewed and considered all external reviewers’ letters fairly.

Lack of communication

The tenure committee investigation also identified a lack of communication between the former dean and the department during Braun’s review.

Silverstein and Bielefeldt told the Camera that Braun took longer than is typical to formally announce his decision not to recommend Montoya for tenure and said there was less communication than usual between him and the department.

Braun received the department’s positive recommendation and the engineering college’s negative one on Jan. 31, 2017, and took until March 16 to send his letter to Moore. Because Bielefeldt and Silverstein were required by university policy to wait for this letter before making any changes to Montoya’s application, they did not have time to request new support letters ahead of the April 2 campus-wide vote.

An early report of the tenure committee’s findings states that Rajagopalan, the department chair, “had not received any communication from the dean about Dr. Montoya’s case,” despite making several inquiries.

Braun told the Camera the nearly two-month time period was necessary to come to an informed decision, but the tenure committee’s report notes he seemed unaware of a policy that asks the dean to discuss tenure disagreements with the applicant’s department chair before sending his recommendation to the provost.

Silverstein and Bielefeldt responded to Braun’s recommendation with a letter to Rajagopalan highlighting Montoya’s achievements in hopes that it would garner more support for her. Braun was given a copy.

Their letter also notes that Montoya was on track to reach the college’s criteria for publications and that 11 of Montoya’s 15 journal papers are published in journals with high impact factors, a record it stated is comparable to or better than other college faculty.

When tenure committee investigators asked Braun for a response to Silverstein and Bielefeldt’s letter, he told them a point-by-point rebuttal did not make sense, according to the report.

Braun also wrote Montoya’s teaching led to her ultimate tenure denial. In his letter to Moore, he described her teaching record as “erratic,” citing wide-ranging feedback.

Silverstein defended Montoya, saying that the faculty course questionnaires the university uses to assess teaching have been shown to be biased and discriminatory toward women and people of color.

She noted Montoya continues to graduate students in her reduced role, and recently graduated a doctoral candidate.

Colleagues defend research

Although not explicitly addressed in any of the investigation reports, Montoya called Braun’s classification of her research discriminatory. She works closely with marginalized and often low-income communities who suffer chronic health issues from the air they breathe. Montoya said that work is important to her as a first-generation minority scholar. She has worked with her doctoral students at CU Boulder to create installations that absorb toxins in the air while being culturally sensitive to how they fit in the community.

Bielefeldt called Montoya’s work more challenging than traditional, situationally controlled research and said it frequently takes longer to complete.

“To do work situated in communities in a respectful way and build those relationships so that they are partners in your work is a lot harder and ultimately more impactful,” she said.

In his March 2017 letter to the provost, Braun included much of Montoya’s research in his description of her service.

“(Montoya) has also been heavily engaged in improving the quality of life for people in developing communities, including those in Chile, Colombia and Peru,” Braun wrote, noting she also promotes STEM education and actively recruited and retained a “more diverse student body.”

Montoya told the Camera, “It’s an underhanded way of saying ‘this is not real research, this is not scholarly work.’”

Sheryl Ehrman, the Don Beall dean of San José State University’s engineering college who met Montoya while Montoya was in Stanford’s graduate program, said minority researchers’ work in their own communities is frequently devalued or “miscategorized as service.”

Ehrman and two other experts in Montoya’s field sent letters to Braun and DiStefano in late 2018 and early 2019 after they learned of Montoya’s tenure denial, specifically about the characterization of her research.

Héctor Jorquera, professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, highlighted Montoya’s work in developing a dual doctoral program between his institute and CU Boulder and lists multiple peer-reviewed publications in which Montoya’s work has appeared in a letter to Braun.

“The… publications show that the peer review community validates professor

Montoya’s research on indoor air pollution,” Jorquera wrote. He also warned the characterization of her research “contradicts the spirit of the dual degree program” and “belittles ongoing and future research collaborations between (CU Boulder) and any Latin American institution.”

Cliff I. Davidson, director of the Center for Sustainable Engineering and professor at Syracuse University, and Ehrman both sent letters reiterating the scientific rigor Montoya applied to her research, which they noted was especially difficult when working in developing or marginalized communities, and questioned Braun’s ranking of her external review letter writers.

Both told the Camera they never got a response. Parra, the CU Boulder spokeswoman, said responding to the emails would have violated a university policy that prohibits modifying the process or responding to additional inputs during an ongoing personnel matter.

Braun said much of his criticism of Montoya’s research had to do with the lack of funding she’d received. But Silverstein said focusing on money can cause the human impact of research to be undervalued.

“I think that’s unfortunate because I think that lots of people who are underrepresented in engineering, whether it’s women or whether it’s people of color … may also say, ‘I have values that I want to see, whether that’s giving back to my community, and I want to incorporate that into what I do,’” Silverstein said.

Braun told the Camera he agreed that money should not decide the worth of research and said, “there’s not a threshold of research funding that is required.”

“There are multiple measures used to evaluate future research effectiveness and research impact. These include proposal success rate, publication history, national or international research awards or other notable research contributions,” Braun said, adding that these were some areas in which Montoya had not excelled.

Investigators found Braun erroneously said that Montoya had not received any honors for research excellence, although her department’s report noted that she was awarded a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Environmental Engineering in 2011.

Decision contradicts college’s aims for diversity

For Montoya and her colleagues, her rejection is about more than tenure.

“There’s a contradiction between the way we’re functioning with Lupita’s case and our so-called value about inclusivity,” Silverstein said. “I think we missed on Lupita’s case.”

Amid claims that Montoya’s tenure denial threatens diversity, the number of underrepresented minority students and faculty in the engineering college has increased.

Since 2016, the college has grown the percentage of women engineering students in a first-year class from 32% to 45%; grown the underrepresented minority student population in a first-year class from 18% to 25% (matching the state’s demographics) and increased the percentage of first-generation students entering the college from 16% to 20%.

However, previous reporting by the Camera shows that while minority recruitment has improved, Braun admitted challenges to graduate those students remain.

Parra also said that the college has increased the percentage of women and under-represented members of its faculty leadership team from 30% in 2015 to 48% in 2019. Three underrepresented minority women are on a tenure track.

As for the tenure process, colleagues said Montoya’s case shows that it is still far from perfect.

“Whether it’s explicit bias or whether it’s implicit bias (or) willful ignorance in some cases, I would say that people don’t want to admit that bias is happening, that they could be biased,” Bielefeldt said.

Still, Silverstein is optimistic that despite the setback, Montoya will persevere and only continue to do more research.

“It’s the institution I’m worried about,” she said. “In this case, the institution failed.”