Court Case: Messmer v. Lehigh University

Case History

Marie Messmer, former assistant professor in the department of chemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, sued the university for sex discrimination in the denial of tenure, under Title VII. The complaint also alleged violations of various Pennsylvania state laws.

In 1996, Lehigh University hired Messmer as a tenure-track assistant professor in the department of chemistry. The university renewed her appointment twice — once in 1997 and again in 2000. Throughout her employment, Messmer consistently received positive reviews from both students and colleagues. She also contributed positively to both the campus and community, establishing a spectroscopy research laboratory at the university, securing research funding, and creating a chemistry outreach program for local elementary school girls.

The university began Messmer’s tenure review in August 2001. Two months later, the tenured faculty of the chemistry department voted by a 10-1 vote to grant her tenure. Both the promotion and tenure committee and the dean of the college of arts and sciences at Lehigh also recommended that Messmer be granted tenure. However, the university’s provost, after asking Messmer to submit additional information for her tenure file, disagreed with the dean’s recommendation.

Efforts by the department of chemistry’s tenured faculty, the dean, and the promotion and tenure committee to encourage the provost to change his recommendation proved unsuccessful. The matter was eventually forwarded to a subcommittee within the Board of Trustees, which agreed with the provost’s recommendation. The Board of Trustees ultimately voted to deny Messmer tenure in 2002.

Upon review of the situation, Lehigh’s Faculty Personnel Committee found that Messmer’s tenure denial was arbitrary and capricious, and that the Board subjected Messmer to a shifting tenure standard that was not applied equally to all candidates. Despite this finding, the Board upheld its original decision. In April 2003, the Board informed Messmer that her appointment would conclude at the end of the current academic year.

Messmer believed that Lehigh University subjected her to different and more stringent standards than two male professors who were granted tenure just prior to her tenure denial and claims that her qualifications were on par with those of the two men. She also asserted that the university has a very low percentage of female science faculty, and that within the department of chemistry, only one tenured professor is a woman.

Messmer filed her complaint in federal court in December 2003. The parties reached a confidential settlement in August 2004.

Key Case Issue

Sex discrimination in the denial of tenure in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.