Penn State

Instructor sues Penn State, cites discrimination

After being denied tenure, a former Penn State assistant professor of architecture is suing two faculty members for sex discrimination.

Jodi La Coe filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, alleging that she was “subjected to a hostile working environment because of sex,” and that she was denied tenure and a promotion to associate professor because of her gender and because of prejudice from a colleague whose advances were spurned.

Mehrdad Hadighi, a professor and head of the architecture department, and James Kalsbeek, a tenured associate professor in the department, are named as defendants. Kalsbeek sought a relationship but was rebuffed, the lawsuit said.

La Coe also filed a charge of discrimination “on the basis of gender, age, retaliation, harassment and the Equal Pay Act” with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

She applied for tenure in 2012, was denied in March 2013 and finished her employment at the end of the academic year on June 30, 2014.

According to the lawsuit, La Coe, who earned an undergraduate architecture degree from Penn State in 1994 and a master’s in architecture from McGill University in 2000, was hired by the Penn State architecture department as a fixed-term instructor in 2003 and was promoted to a tenure-track position four years later.

In her suit, La Coe argued that she deserved tenure and promotion based on her experience; “exceptional performance” in teaching, scholarship and service; and recommendations from the promotion and tenure committees of the architecture department and the College of Arts and Architecture.

But Hadighi, who became department head in 2012, twice recommended against La Coe’s tenure promotion but committed procedural violations in his evaluations, according to the lawsuit. Barbara Korner, the dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, then relied on Hadighi’s opinion to deny La Coe, the suit stated.

La Coe asserted that a contemporary who received tenure, assistant professor James Cooper, “was treated more favorably” in the department and paid more, despite her higher workload and a national teaching award, which he lacked.

According to the lawsuit, La Coe served on 55 committees while Cooper, in the same year, was on 20. La Coe said Hadighi refused her request for service reduction but offered to lessen workloads for other tenure-track faculty.

La Coe also maintains she and Cooper received glowing peer reviews but, in her case, the department and college unfairly emphasized anonymous negative student evaluations that came from classes she co-taught with Kalsbeek.

The lawsuit charged that the department “historically has had a dearth of tenured female professors and a glass ceiling,” and that her tenure and promotion denial “occurred under circumstances giving rise to the inference of sex discrimination.”

“Professor La Coe was treated less favorably than similarly situated male faculty in that she was denied tenure while Professor Cooper received tenure, (and) she received less compensation than Professor Cooper while performing equivalent duties,” the lawsuit stated, adding that she “was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and harassment including by Professor Kalsbeek.”

The lawsuit said Kalsbeek, who “professed his love” for La Coe in 2004, became angry when she declined a relationship. He frequently called her and, one night, scared her by showing up at her house uninvited, yelling and leaving only when she threatened to call the police, the lawsuit stated.

Subsequently, the lawsuit said, Kalsbeek gave La Coe a signed copy of “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex” for her birthday. He also “verbally abused” her in front of students, including her own, the lawsuit said.

“To the extent possible, Professor Kalsbeek has acted with revenge and interfered with Professor La Coe’s well-being, advancement, performance and reputation,” the lawsuit stated.

La Coe is seeking “back pay, damages for prospective harm in her present position, compensatory damages for emotional pain and suffering, punitive damages” and payment of legal expenses.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers, citing Penn State’s policy on pending litigation, said the university has no comment.