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The Northern District of New York’s chief federal judge has cast a skeptical eye on a college professor’s claim that negative student evaluations describing her as cold, impersonal and condescending amount to sexually charged euphemisms for “not warm and feminine” and “not nurturing.” Carolyn M. Byerly, an assistant professor denied tenure at Ithaca College, couched her sexual discrimination claim in an unusual context. She contended that the negative comments made by students — comments that ultimately resulted in her denial of tenure — evinced an insidious rather than open bias. But Chief Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. did not buy her argument and dismissed her case on a summary judgment motion. Byerly v. Ithaca College was commenced under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York Human Rights Law. Byerly, an assistant professor in the Department of Television-Radio, brought the action after she was denied tenure. She claimed the denial of tenure was based on gender bias and stereotyping, but the federal court found no merit to her arguments. Records show that in October 1999 the department’s personnel committee voted 5-3 to recommend Byerly for tenure. The minority expressed concerns over student evaluations. Regardless, the department chair recommended tenure, only to have the dean issue a report to the All Faculty Tenure and Promotion Committee recommending against tenure. That committee cited concerns over Byerly’s teaching ability and voted her down. An internal appeals committee rejected her challenge, the provost recommended against promotion and finally the college president, Peggy Williams, informed Byerly that she would not get tenure. In her federal lawsuit, Byerly focused largely on the negative student comments. The college admitted relying on those comments in concluding that Byerly’s teaching abilities were substandard, but claimed the remarks were gender neutral and that gender played no role. Students complained that Byerly was intimidating and condescending, insulting and rude, cold and impersonal, close-minded and unapproachable, overdemanding and overly critical. Byerly contended those remarks masked a deeper bias and suggested that the real problem was that the students expected a female teacher to behave in a more traditionally feminine than masculine manner. But Scullin found the comments “gender-neutral on their face,” and said they “describe personal traits and demeanor in gender-neutral terms.” Additionally, Scullin said, Byerly’s own colleagues considered her “a mediocre candidate,” and she “was regarded as a modest scholar with an adequate service record … and many of her colleagues rated her as a below-average teacher.” RETALIATION CLAIM The court also rejected Byerly’s argument that she was denied tenure in retaliation for being involved with a committee that recruited two minority professors just before her evaluation. “To support her claim that she was engaged in protected activity, plaintiff merely alleges that while serving on a campus committee she advocated for the hiring of two minority candidates,” Scullin said. “Even if true … such conclusory allegations are insufficient to show that she was involved in opposing an unlawful employment practice.” Jonathan C. Moore of Manhattan appeared for Byerly. Joseph C. Dole of Bond, Schoeneck & King in Syracuse argued for the college.

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