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Gender bias in academia in Massachusetts

Lakshmi Balachandra (Photo Courtesy of Babson College website)

By Sonalika Goswami

Boston University News Service

Lakshmi Balachandra was a professor in the Entrepreneurship Division at Babson College. But the chair of her department, Professor Andrew Corbett, subjected her to disrespect and petty discriminations that ultimately turned her coveted tenure track faculty position into a series of increasingly intolerable slights and disadvantages. When Balachandra risked obtaining tenure through repeated complaints over time to the Babson College administration of his verbal abuse, gender bias, mistreatment and inconsiderations, she was retaliated against. Corbett was promoted to chair at a research center at the college with hiring responsibilities for a new faculty position with a focus on women’s entrepreneurship. On Feb. 27, Balachandra drew the line and sued Babson College.

Corbett targeted Balachandra for mistreatment during his two terms as department chair. In 11 years, as the only female tenured professor at her level and one of only two women of color among 38 colleagues in the Entrepreneurship division, she received inadequate research time that she aimed to use for publishing papers that would further her career and Babson’s Entrepreneurial reputation. She was held back from leading a required course that would provide additional time for research and denied several leadership opportunities and awards that were given to her male white colleagues, despite Balachandra having better qualifications.

Balachandra published a solo-authored article in the Harvard Business Review, a well-respected publication in Entrepreneurship. Around the same time, one of her male colleagues published a multi-author piece for Entrepreneur Magazine. Corbett sent an immediate congratulatory email attaching  her colleague’s paper to the entire department, including the Dean and the Provost heralding the male faculty’s member’s accomplishment, tagged with statements such as “This is amazing what you said, you know, showing everyone, you know, you need to check this out. This is how you turn academics into practice.” Then when  Balachandra’s informed Corbett of her article in HBR, a more prestigious journal and accomplishment, Corbett sent an email late on a Friday evening to only the tenure track faculty in the division, and omitted the Provost and the Dean. The email said, “ If you have some time, you might want to check out this article.”

Even as a pre-tenured professor in 2018, Balachandra faced verbal abuse every now and then from him.  

“The way he spoke to me, not even my parents had spoken to me in such a tone or manner,” she said.

The tipping point was when an African-Asian junior colleague in her department, Angela Randolph, was denied appropriate recognition for the Best Paper award she received at their prestigious Academy of Management Conference. Even though Randolph was the primary author, Corbett sent out an email announcing the award with more emphasis on the two other white female co-authors, diminishing Randolph’s role in it.. 

“He put her later [in the order] as if she just helped with the paper,” Balachandra said. “I was so pissed. That hit me harder.” She felt it was wrong. “I knew it was her paper and he was misleading. You get the kind of reputation on campus by who promotes you.”

When Balachandra went to her about it, Randolph said that she realized the partiality and that she was going to talk to the authorities. But Randolph felt Corbett had an attitude that “he was meaner to me than he was to her [Randolph].” Balachandra knew this type of discrepancy and misattribution of accomplishments was not okay and that Corbett no longer deserved to be in charge.

“Never mind the toxic behavior, but this was really detrimental to our careers,” she said. 

Prior to filing a lawsuit, Balachandra emailed the Title IX coordinator with her concerns in 2019. The Title IX coordinator at Babson College, Betsy Rauch, who’s responsible for prevention of sexual discrimination on campus, informed her that the matter wasn’t going to be private, which meant that her chair would be aware. As pre-tenure faculty, Balachandra was reluctant to file a Title IX complaint against her chair as he would be presenting her tenure case in the future. He could have derailed her career even though her excelling records would have made his case difficult. However, a lot of the promotions within academia aren’t wholly based on records. 

“It’s very subjective,” she said. 

Even before Corbett became her chair, two of her senior male colleagues from another department, Kevin Bruyeel and Stephen Deets, came up to her in the cafeteria and said in reference to Corbett, “Oh, he is awful to women. Watch out.”

“So again, people like this are able to survive in academia. It’s like the one place where it’s tolerated,” she said. 

In the coming days, she also heard her white colleagues worrying about the fact that there were an increasing number of Asian students coming in every year.

Post tenure, she decided to go to Human Resources to file an official employment complaint against him in 2020. 

“I felt he should have been removed not only because of the way he was treating me, but also because of how he was treating other women,” she said. The HR said they conducted an investigation. “I don’t know how the HR investigations go, but they said they talked to him and that was the end of that.”

Balachandra then decided to write an article about it in The Boston Globe before going on a sabbatical. In the article, she shared her experience with her chair and how she went to the HR and she felt they did nothing. She felt disrespected and needed to be heard. The piece came out on Sept. 28, 2021.  Administration was not happy about it and made public comments against her on campus. 

While on sabbatical, she filed a complaint to the Title IX coordinator resulting in several two-three hour conversations over the summer of 2022. Rauch emailed her in September saying that there had been no title IX violation in her analysis, but that the college had retained an external lawyer to investigate.

“Apparently there is no safety there,” Balachandra said. “It’s like her own decision.” 

Rauch informed her that there would be a follow-up from a lawyer, Tracey Spruce, who retained the college administration to investigate. Spruce emailed and asked if they could talk. Balachandra reached out to her lawyer Monica Shah, a partner from Zalkind, Duncan & Bernstein Law, who told her that doing the investigation this way through the HR was a method of making it inaccessible for Balachandra, unlike Title IX, which is an open file. So Balachandra, with the help of Shah, filed a lawsuit with the Massachusetts Council on Discrimination in September.

Babson College responded to the council within the given time frame saying Balachandra’s claims were unjustified. 

“They called me difficult,” she said. The complaint said one of the ways her chair retaliated was by denying her research funding. “I know he did because the grants administrator had called me and told me that he had turned me down,” when she was the only faculty member who had applied. 

Sandra Castaldini, the Grant’s Administrator, told her that her application went through the Butler Institute where Corbett was promoted to faculty director. She was turned down, but the Dean of Faculty stepped in to offer her a different award. The Dean was also aware about the tension between Balachandra and Corbett as Balachandra had already reached out to him multiple times about the mistreatment and inequality. Corbett had also targeted other women, including a senior white faculty member Megan Way, the Chair of the Economics Division, who was Balachandra’s corroborator and offered support to Balachandra when reaching out to the Dean to file her complaint.

“So it was probably to shut me up,” Balachandra said. The college, to show their racial fairness, passed on the role to one of her junior colleagues who was a black woman. This was insulting to her performance as well. “This had nothing to do with her…this is a leadership position for someone senior, someone tenured.” 

Castaldini called Balachandra to tell her she would be getting a research award, but not the one she applied for. She had applied for a course release as her teaching load had increased with tenure, even though she was a highly research active faculty member. 

“I wanted more time for research…but I missed the deadline because I didn’t realize it goes into effect a year after your tenure and my chair never counseled me that way,” she said.

Therefore, in February 2023 Balachandra pulled the Massachusetts Council suit and sued Babson at the US district court level. 

The complaint read that as of 2021, three women of color faculty had left or announced they were leaving because of Babson’s toxic environment. In 2020, Babson created a committee to evaluate the bias against women of color in the faculty in the student opinion feedback surveys used for faculty promotion and award decisions. After the committee found evidence of bias against women of color, supported by academic research, Babson faculty voted to stop using the instrument.

Shah, who largely works on discrimination in employment, said academia, like any other industries, have systemic problems when it comes to race and gender discrimination. She said she does see a lot of cases where women faculty of color are treated less equitably than their male white peers. In some of the cases, it can lead to adverse actions, such as demotion or dismissal. 

There are several extensive federal and state level laws that exist against discrimination. One of them being Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits any sex based discrimination in any educational institution that receives funding from the Federal government. 

“It exists for admissions, equities or extracurriculars but it also exists to protect faculty members who are working in an institution to make sure that female faculty members are given the same equal opportunities as the male faculty members,” she said.

There is also a Title VII that prohibits employment discrimination based on effective factors including race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy and such. In Massachusetts, there is a state law similar to this title which is designed to protect against unlawful discrimination, including sex and race.

“We really see a strong case here and all around,” Shah said regarding Balachandra’s case. “We have laid facts and details in the complaint. We believe that Prof. Balachandra is going to be able to prove that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and really received consistently less time to dedicate to her research and less recognition for her accomplishments.” 

She said Balachandra will also be able to prove how she was demeaned in comparison to her male colleagues and when she took her concerns to the administration, people who were in charge of looking into the matter “have failed to do so.”

Babson College has yet to respond officially to the complaint. However, on reaching out and talking to the human resources department about any actions being taken against Corbett, Katie Zeidman, a human resource officer, said he was still serving as a professor in the college. She said she has “no idea” about any of Corbett’s racial or sexist outbursts. The other male colleague said that they were legally obligated not to talk about it.

“I think this is part of the problem with academia,” said Balachandra. “Behaviors that are never accepted in a traditional workplace are ignored…because of the God-like reverences we have for these accomplished male faculty.”

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