Just as any professor might have been, Ceil M. Pillsbury was disappointed when, in 1989, she was denied tenure at the University of Wisconsin's business school. The accounting professor had won an award for outstanding teaching, and her research had been published in one of the top journals in her field.
Her chagrin turned to anger, though, and she immediately accused the school's tenure committee of sex discrimination. A group of senior faculty members denied the charge, claiming that her research wasn't up to snuff. They later justified their decision by bringing up a host of issues ranging from what she wore at a Christmas party to her taste in jokes. "I was a person who really believed in the system," Pillsbury says, "but now I'm viewed as a major troublemaker."
Is there a glass ceiling in the ivory tower? Only 8% of the tenured faculty at BUSINESS WEEK's Top 20 business schools are women (table), and at several prominent B-schools, including those at Dartmouth College and Washington University, not one woman is tenured. Says Diana R. Harrington, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business: "The system is controlled by people who have been in the club for many years, mostly white men."
SERIOUS CHARGES. Some B-school deans, however, play down the charges, arguing that the supply of qualified women has long been limited, and that only in recent years have more come into the pipeline. "My sense is that there is a lot of opportunity for women right now," says Thomas F. Keller, dean of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.
Nowhere has the issue risen to greater prominence than at the University of Virginia. In 1990, Virginia's Darden School failed to recommend Associate Professor Melissa H. Birch for tenure. She charged discrimination. Five months later, the university provost reversed the B-school's decision and later named a five-person committee of outsiders to study reports of sex bias on campus.
The panel, which issued a report in April, found what it called "a palpable lack of trust between female faculty and male faculty" at Darden and faulted John W. Rosenblum, the B-school's dean since 1983. It accused him of being unable or unwilling to address "the underlying issues that diversity is raising." Replies Rosenblum: "I'm not perfect as a manager, but I don't think that's a fair and accurate portrayal of the qualities I've brought to the job."
Since the fall semester began, Rosenblum has appointed a task force to help identify women qualified for senior appointments, required seminars on sexual harassment for faculty, and named an ombudsman to handle future complaints. But Birch says Darden is only putting on "a good show." The new task force, of which she is a member, has met just once.
CHEAP SHOTS. The dispute at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, meanwhile, remains unresolved. After being denied tenure, Pillsbury charged that she was discriminated against because of her gender and because she was pregnant. Her faculty colleagues, she believed, had given her every indication that she would become tenured. But, Pillsbury alleges, their early enthusiasm began to fade after she announced that she was having a baby. Dean Eric Schenker maintains that Pillsbury didn't meet the school's standards for academic research.
To buttress its case against Pillsbury, however, the business school took potshots at her character. It issued a report alleging that she had told colleagues off-color jokes and had attended a school Christmas party wearing "a sweater that had a small boot suspended from each breast." In fact, the novelty sweater is decorated with three miniature Christmas stockings.
A university grievance panel found in Pillsbury's favor in 1990, ordering the B-school to reconsider its decision. The school refused to reopen her case, and Pillsbury filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In August, the EEOC found a "discriminatory environment" at the school and urged that Pillsbury be given tenure. By then, Pillsbury had sued the university's board of regents for damages.
Even today, three years after the initial dispute, there are no tenured women at the Milwaukee B-school. The Labor Dept. recently issued a report concluding that "a pattern and practice" of sex discrimination exists at the university's Milwaukee campus. But Pillsbury has some consolation. On Nov. 10, she was recommended for tenure at the school's Green Bay branch.