Class Ceiling

The seven-year fight for equal pay at Kent State.

Emanon Hard Rock Café Friday, January 19
That grandmotherly smile under upswept white hair, that contralto chuckle, that plate of Christmas cookies studded with Hershey's Kisses in her hands -- none of it speaks of Dorothy Kovacevich's reputation as a troublemaker.

Back in convulsive 1967, Kovacevich was no revolutionary. The "mild-mannered" 38-year-old mother of two and former music teacher had worked seven years as a school psychologist for Summit County. A Kent State University professor invited her to train teachers, so she quit her job and began doctoral studies in the rapidly changing field of special education.

"We wanted to start building programs to educate everybody" from severely disabled to gifted children, she says. Upon earning her degree, six years and two babies later, she was hired as an instructor.

"The first 10 years were wonderful," Kovacevich says. "There was a sense of community."

Special education was just starting to customize programs for a range of problems -- instead of barring some kids from classrooms altogether -- and her department trained future teachers to properly assess and place children. "We became one of the biggest, best, fastest-developing programs in Ohio," Kovacevich says. "We attracted people from everywhere."

She never published in academic journals before she was hired. In those days, having one's articles appear in obscure periodicals was not the benchmark of scholarship that it is today. Instead, she and her colleagues ran field programs from day one. "You felt appreciated and wanted," she says.

In 1975, she entered the tenure track as an assistant professor, earning $14,000 a year. Tenure would come three years later. But Kovacevich wasn't yet assertive about her future. "When the time came for promotion [in 1983], the dean told me, 'You're not ready,'" she says. "Did I care at the time? No. I was naive enough not to realize how much more often it happened to women."

Nor did she notice the changing environment. "Teaching and supervision were no longer important to anyone but the students," she says. "[The administration] gave a lot of lip service to teaching, but didn't regard it because it was too hard to measure."

Typically, an assistant professor becomes an associate professor in six years. It took Kovacevich 12. Then she looked at the salary lists in the union office. The eight men in her department were paid more than the four women -- and an average of $12,500 more than Kovacevich. "They had the same degree, the same experience, the same everything but salary," she says.

After several years of failing to get a salary adjustment, Kovacevich revived the faculty union's Committee W -- a local chapter of the unwieldy-titled Committee on Women and Minorities of the American Association of University Professors. In November 1993, she filed a complaint on behalf of Committee W with the U.S. Department of Labor. Unlike lawsuits, such complaints hit a university where it lives -- jeopardizing federal money, if the feds can prove widespread discrimination.

"That's when the retaliation happened," she says.

Until her 1995 retirement, Kovacevich would not receive her requested salary adjustment or further promotion, despite support from colleagues and immediate supervisors. Through the Freedom of Information Act, she read her personnel file. In it were back-to-back letters from her dean: one saying she did a wonderful job, the next, after the federal complaint, saying her work was horrible.

She says professors would come to her and say that, when they were new hires, Education Dean Joanne Schwartz warned them to stay away from Kovacevich. "They were scared to death to be seen with me. I felt horrible when I was a pariah."

Schwartz confirms the letters, but denies warning off colleagues. She says the rumors about Kovacevich may have come from faculty gossiping about the professor's negativity.

Yet Kovacevich says that, after she filed the complaint, administrators "called not only my personal friends, but also many of my students to get any dirt they could."

Colleagues were summoned before then-Provost Myron Henry, who sought evidence of misconduct. Administrators used the information to threaten sanctions. Kovacevich's sin was filing mileage reports in her own name on behalf of student teachers, though other professors did the same when deadlines passed for students to apply for reimbursement. Kovacevich claims she was singled out for the practice, but weathered the threat of discipline. She paid students out of pocket.

Henry, who later became provost at the University of Southern Mississippi, says his inquiries were routine, and that retaliation was not the motive. "I was obligated to do some investigating," he says, but declines to go into detail.

Kovacevich sued for sex and age discrimination in 1994. Two years later, a jury awarded her $11,823. The decision was appealed.

In August, a federal appellate court agreed with her gender complaint, but said state governments are immune from age discrimination claims and sent the case back to U.S. District Court in Cleveland for determination of damages.

In November, the seven-year-old Labor Department complaint was finally settled. The university agreed to pay $219,000 to 24 women professors. Kovacevich is not among them. Under the agreement, the Labor Department used statistics to find the worst delays in promotion -- whittling a list of 120 women down to 24 -- then calculated lost pay, plus interest and retirement benefits.

But Kovacevich's battles have made an impression on the university and its pocketbook.

Since 1993, KSU has paid $433,450 in legal fees to contest her two allegations. That puts the school's tab at $652,000 and counting. The retired professor has turned the fight over to others, who say her example is only the most public among many.

One afternoon during finals week, Kovacevich adds her plate of cookies to the snacks on a union office table, warning, "This is the only time of year I bake." A few Committee W members have gathered to discuss strategy -- and their continued frustration with a university they say refuses to take them seriously.

Despite the Labor Department settlement, KSU officials maintain their innocence. The agreement stemmed from their wish to halt the mounting legal fees, not from an admission of guilt, they say. After settling this and a handful of other cases, university administrators -- including its female president, Carol Cartwright -- say there is no gender inequity. That denial is firmly worded in the settlement, and women who accept the money must sign a document saying they recognize KSU's position.

"The university has been consistent on that response," says KSU attorney James Wilkins. "We don't discriminate."

This sentiment remains at the heart of Committee W's discontent. "You cannot work to undo systematic discrimination until [its] existence is acknowledged," says sociologist Elaine Hall.

The agreement covers inequities the feds documented from 1991 through 1993. If Committee W wants to enter another seven-year fight, it can file a complaint for 1998 through 2000 and would have to keep refiling every three years, until members are satisfied inequities are gone. Intervening years are lost because of the statute of limitations.

The settlement also allows female assistant professors -- even if they're not among the 24 -- to try for promotion next fall under the Labor Department's watchful eye. But Beth Blue Swadener, co-chairwoman of Committee W, worries that the disappointingly small payout will serve as a low-ball model if other faculty groups try the same approach.

Statistically speaking, there appears to be room for future complaints. Though women make up only 16 percent of the full professor ranks at KSU, they constitute almost half of assistant professors. Women are also concentrated in the part-time positions on satellite campuses; those posts bring the slowest promotions. But pinpointing clear cases of bias is much more difficult.

Part of the problem is that sexual discrimination is a squishy topic in a legal system that requires sharp edges. This isn't your mother's discrimination -- "Get me a cup of coffee" or "We're looking for a man for this position." And these are intelligentsia who get paid $40,000 and up for nine months of studying and mentoring young folks.

But the women faculty still can't overlook the fact that, on average, women professors earn 83 cents to every dollar for their male counterparts at Kent and its eight regional campuses. Lacking another explanation, they conclude that either the university is discriminating, or it's hiring women who aren't very good.

Kathe Davis, women's studies director and an associate professor of English, is getting "one of the larger" settlement payouts, which range from $1,800 to $12,000.

Davis started in 1976, receiving tenure without promotion after five years. (KSU is unusual in separating the lifetime job guarantee from rank.) In 1982, her chairman told her not to apply for promotion, reasoning she hadn't published enough -- though a man who had published nothing was promoted with the chairman's support. Davis reached associate professor a year later.

Since then, she hasn't tried for full professor, because she hasn't finished a book. Although her field is contemporary women's poetry, her own prize-winning poems don't count as publications, because they aren't research.

Other women refuse to speak publicly. Notes Kovacevich: "I've heard so many times, 'Oh, Dorothy, you have a husband; I'm a single mom, and we have to eat.'" Privately, however, they say they've had promotions denied for not enough publications, research on the "wrong topics," or teaching evaluations that were a few hundredths of a point shy of average. They further contend that criteria shift from year to year, candidate to candidate.

Professor Shirley Graham arrived as a part-time temporary instructor in 1964 -- the only one in biological sciences with a doctorate.

Although she taught full loads and published research, the department hired 13 men to tenure-track positions. (She points out she wasn't qualified for a few of the jobs.) Graham filed discrimination complaints with several federal agencies in 1974 and was fired. Eight years later, the Labor Department negotiated a "sizable" settlement. She got her job back in 1984 and became an assistant professor in 1989. Since then, promotions and raises have been timely -- and there are now five women in biology instead of one.

Graham, a botanist, says she is the world's leading specialist on the biology and evolution of the loosestrife family of plants. In 1999, she was among 48 people honored by the Ohio Academy of Science. Brent Bruet, biological sciences chairman, calls her an "outstanding scientist."

Still, Graham's salary has not caught up with the salaries of male colleagues. She asked for a salary review in August 1998. Her dean promised a decision near the start of this semester.

"There's greater equality among new hires," Graham says. "I don't see any real change for people who have been here a long time."

A recipient in the Committee W case, Graham says small, one-time payments don't erase decades of inequity. "There are clearly still many internal barriers to overcome at Kent State before women are able to contribute fully and be credited equally with men."

Information on past discrimination cases is hard to find, since such matters are usually settled out of court, the terms sealed. One involved Jeanine Centuori, KSU's first female assistant professor in architecture. She had an artsy approach and bucked the department's model of assigning the same projects to undergraduates every year. Her department voted not to reappoint her.

She appealed to a board of faculty and administrators, who voted unanimously to keep her. President Cartwright vetoed the decision. Centuori filed a complaint with the state Equal Opportunity Commission, settled out of court, and left for a university in Hollywood. But the settlement precludes her from discussing the case.

The University of Akron is a smaller, regional school, about a dozen miles west of Kent. On the surface, the two share nothing but the hideous architecture of post-1960 building campaigns.

They also share this: women who complain bitterly about sexual discrimination. Here's where they differ: Akron's provost commissioned a gender survey, and when incoming President Luis M. Proenza saw the negative results, he created a Commission on Equity and promised an independent salary review.

"A male president has more latitude in being able to address these issues," says Therese Lueck, professor of communications at Akron.

Lueck shares a common experience with women professors everywhere: colleagues who deem research on discrimination or gender as trivial. At promotion meetings last year, a male colleague looked at her collection of research on women's publishing and suggested she list the articles and chapters separately as "morsels," implying second-rate scholarship. She says her letter of promotion made it clear it was granted reluctantly.

Shortly afterward, Lueck won an international Fulbright Fellowship. She is spending this semester in China. "There hasn't been any problem since," she says.

Akron's initiative grew out of a 1999 "Status of Women" study, which found that women composed a majority of part-time, non-tenured and low-ranked faculty, but only a quarter of full professors and 13 percent of administrators. Without adjusting statistics for experience, the study reported that male professors who work year-round average $27,000 more than women. Among faculty who don't work the summer term, male assistant professors made nearly $3,000 more than women. Men's salaries were higher in every job category except the lowest-paid nonunion staff.

Said one woman who answered a survey question: "During a search, a senior colleague publicly stated that a particular female candidate's research must have been done by her Ph.D. husband." Another wrote: "I firmly believe this is one of the most hostile environments I have ever experienced as a woman (and an uppity one at that)."

Those who conducted the study are encouraged by the administrative response so far, but await the final report, says Sally Gamauf, director of the office of accessibility. Akron's relative spirit of openness would likely thrill the women of Kent.

When President Cartwright arrived at KSU 10 years ago, every attempt to talk about discrimination was rebuffed, Davis and Swadener say.

"We had no sense [discrimination] was a conspiracy," Davis says. "It had not happened under Carol Cartwright's watch. This was her opportunity to say, 'I came, I found this, no one is to blame, and I can fix it.'"

In November 1995, the pair offered to end the federal complaint if the university would commit to serious study and remedies. Two months later, Cartwright responded in one paragraph, saying her only choice was to fight: "Our position in this complaint is the only responsible one."

Women make up 13 percent of college presidents nationwide. Though their numbers slowly grow, female executives don't necessarily arrive with revolutionary agendas. As Swadener puts it, "Patriarchy can wear a dress." Kovacevich's assessment: "They're afraid to be seen as weak sisters."

Through spokesman Ron Kirksey, Cartwright refused several interview requests. But union president Ken Calkins says she did call him to complain about professors talking to Scene, concerned that bad publicity would harm recruiting.

Some of Cartwright's policies have clearly benefited women. She opened a Women's Resource Center, encouraged parity for women's athletics, and instituted a new promotion method that better rewards teaching and advising. The new system would tremendously boost equity, Davis says, but the entrenched publish-or-perish system has proven difficult to overturn.

The Labor Department seems to agree there's a problem at Kent. "The preponderance of evidence suggests there is discrimination in promotion by gender in faculty at KSU," says a 1995 investigation report. But the situation's severity, says Hall, depends upon whose eyes it's seen through.

In a 1997 survey, three-quarters of faculty agreed that the school treats both genders equally in evaluating promotion and tenure. But when responses are broken down, 94 percent of men agreed, compared with 52 percent of women, says Hall, who conducted the study with Swadener.

Also, two-thirds of the entire sample agreed there are inequities in pay and promotion, and that administrators responded inadequately to the Labor Department complaint.

Even on the university's dime, the same perceptions turn up. In 1998, KSU paid Canadian consultants $100,000 to study the university's employment "culture." As consultants must, they stuffed the six-volume report with such Dilbertisms as "statement evaluator data." But sometimes they spoke loud and clear.

They found a "strong need for improvement" in gender equity. Just one-third of employees -- and one-fifth of women -- said females are treated equally.

"Many [employees], in fact, believe that a certain degree of stagnation has set in," the consultants wrote. "People who work at KSU do not want the university to grow complacent regarding this issue: The need for gender equity is just as pressing today as it has ever been."

But if administrators have been reluctant to address the issue, so have many of the aggrieved.

A number of women with the dual protections of tenure and academic freedom refused to be interviewed for this story, saying they're up for promotion soon and fear retaliation. And while passionate about citing numerous studies that show subtle and often unintentional discrimination is a national phenomenon, Hall declines to talk about her own career path.

At the Labor Department's request, Committee W collected stories of possible discrimination. Swadener says one woman gave her statement, then returned to the union office in tears, husband and child in tow, and asked to rescind it, fearing for her job.

"If they say the wrong thing, they're dead," Kovacevich declares. "Fear is the most prevalent emotion on this campus."

There's little doubt Kent has an attitude problem. In the consultants' study, just one in five employees agreed that "people trust one another at KSU." Even anonymous surveys provoke fear: One woman told Davis that she falsified demographic information on the consultants' survey because she was the only woman with her job and feared someone would trace her answers.

Hearing this, the university's lawyers find the politest way to express exasperation. "When you're trying to prevent or remedy discrimination, real or perceived, if you create processes and procedures and people choose not to invoke them, the university is in a very difficult position," attorney Wilkins says.

The Labor Department has been equally frustrating to administrators. In a 1995 letter to the agency, KSU attorneys noted that, for 10 years, the very same agency pursuing the complaint had turned up no deficiencies in annual reviews. "At what point can an employer reasonably say that it has looked at enough data?" Wilkins wrote. Also, promotion requests go through several layers of review, with several chances for appeal, while a union contract protects employee rights.

Committee W members also acknowledge that, since the complaint, promotions have come faster for women in lower ranks. And principal players in the group today have been promoted.

Co-chairwoman Swadener is a full professor in the education school and says she has received timely raises and promotions. Two past members have become administrators. Stephane Booth, former co-chairwoman, is an assistant dean. Robert Johnson, who worked on the salary statistics backing the complaint, became sociology department chairman last year.

The university still disputes the salary studies by Committee W and the Labor Department, in part because they don't account for the effect that rank has on salary. The university also protested that Committee W computed the supposedly unbiased statistics used by the Labor Department.

"With all due respect, their methodology is flawed," Wilkins says.

Other professors echo Wilkins's view that statistics don't tell a complete story. To prove wage inequity in individual suits, courts require a "comparitor," legalese for a male of similar experience who receives higher pay. In her suit, Kovacevich prevailed by using the example of Robert Zuckerman. Though hired at the same time, he was two decades younger and was making nearly $6,000 more when she retired. The associate professor is amused he was compared with Kovacevich, saying their work is entirely different.

The pay difference built up through annual merit raises. When funds were available, departments voted on awards for top performers. There were two years in which Zuckerman received raises, but Kovacevich didn't apply. Another year, he got $1,500 compared to her $500. In three years, the court documented, the department voted merit for Kovacevich, but the dean vetoed it. The appeals court ruled the system was "opaque."

Zuckerman says it's unfair to fault him for higher pay when Kovacevich twice didn't apply. Any raise in base pay will result in larger future raises when union contracts call for across-the-board percentage increases. Over 20 years, the difference compounds.

"I earned merit," he says. "At Kent, people who do work hard get rewarded."

And that, according to Schwartz, is at the heart of the Kovacevich case. "The woman has spent her life trying to prove she was more successful in her career than she was."

As far as the university is concerned, the matter of discrimination is closed. "Even if the government could prove all the allegations," Wilkins says, "this [$219,000] is the best they could expect through litigation." Besides, "The university's ongoing review gives it a high degree of confidence that it does not and has not discriminated."

This year, Assistant Professor Vilma Seeberg joined Committee W and updated the salary and promotion analysis. She found that the majority of female faculty makes $50,000 to $60,000, while most men are in the $55,000 to $80,000 range. Two women, former administrators, make more than $90,000 a year, compared with 45 men.

"You can slice it down to 10 different reasons . . . but if you look at the larger picture, there is no way you can say 80 cents on the dollar is equity," she says.

Seeberg started in 1989 in the educational foundations and special services department -- the same one Kovacevich retired from. She just published her second book on the Chinese education system, which she has studied since 1979.

Barbara Schirmer arrived in the department in 1997 -- hired as a tenured full professor and chairwoman. She holds Seeberg's scholarship in "high esteem."

Yet Seeberg has twice been turned down for promotion. At first, she says, she "didn't want to be bothered" by the Committee W case. "I hate to see myself as a victim of anything."

But a number caught her eye: Women took an average of 11 years to reach associate professor, while men were promoted in five years. "As I approached 11 years, I couldn't help but notice the coincidence. I'm probably the only assistant professor who's published two single-author books. It's been a painful experience. I had trouble understanding it, until I looked at the larger picture."

Now that women make up the majority of undergraduate classes nationwide, Committee W members wonder what Kent is teaching future professors and employers by refusing to discuss the problem.

"They'd better know how to collect and analyze data, and fight the good fight," Swadener says. "The system doesn't show any signs of changing. They should enter any work setting with eyes open."

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.