Appeals court orders Southeastern Oklahoma State University to rehire transgender professor, with tenure

Dive Brief: 

  • A U.S. appeals court ordered Southeastern Oklahoma State University to rehire a transgender English professor and grant her tenure after she was denied it and the school allowed her employment contract to lapse in 2011. The tenure snub came after she transitioned in 2007 and the university disregarded a faculty committee’s recommendation that she be granted tenure.
  • The three-judge panel on Monday rejected the university’s argument that reinstating the plaintiff, Rachel Tudor, would be impossible because of hostility between her and the school. The ruling noted that workarounds are possible, including remote work and a clear set of workplace guidelines.
  • The judges also pointed to the “insulated nature of tenured professorships,” which they said would make it unlikely that Tudor would face extreme workplace hostility if she were reinstated.

Dive Insight: 

The ruling marks another court decision influenced by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case last year, Bostock v. Clayton County, which found discriminating against transgender individuals violated federal employment law. It also underscores that ignoring a faculty committee’s recommendation to grant an employee tenure for personal or political reasons can backfire on a university

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Southeastern in 2015 on Tudor’s behalf, arguing she would have been granted tenure if not for her gender identity. The agency settled with the university in 2017, but Tudor opted to continue litigation and won a jury verdict of about $1.2 million. 

The ruling this week rejects Southeastern’s appeal to overturn that verdict. “In the wake of Bostock, it is now clear that transgender discrimination, like that complained of by Dr. Tudor, is discrimination ‘because of sex’ prohibited under Title VII,” the panel of judges wrote. 

The Bostock ruling has had an impact on discrimination lawsuits from higher education to healthcare settings. The U.S. Department of Education issued a memo in June saying the ruling also applied to Title IX, the federal law banning sex-based discrimination on campuses. 

Southeastern also argued that hostility between its employees and Tudor would have made her return impossible. But the panel noted that tenured professors don’t have much interaction with their colleagues, making run-ins less likely. 

“In other words, a tenured university professor holds an insular position that can effectively operate without the need for extensive collaboration with colleagues or school administrators,” the panel wrote in the ruling. 

The judges also awarded Tudor monetary damages from the time she would have been granted tenure when she applied in the 2009-10 academic year until her reinstatement, asking a district court to calculate the amount. 

In a statement, Southeastern said it received the decision but declined to comment on specifics in the case because of pending litigation. Tudor’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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