After twice being denied tenure, this Naval Academy professor says she is seeking justice
Special to The Washington Post January 31, 2022
At the U.S. Naval Academy, assistant professor Carolyn Chun stood alongside a memorial outside of the academic building where she teaches math to midshipmen.
To the untrained eye, the installation — a bunch of metal dots, embedded, on the diagonal, across the plaza's courtyard — looks like a giant game of steppingstones. The memorial, Chun said, represents the location where Albert Michelson conducted his experiment to accurately measure the speed of light along the old sea wall of the academy, receiving the 1907 Nobel Prize in physics for his efforts. The building next to where Chun holds class is named after Michelson, in fact. Chun has passed by these stones innumerable times over the past six years; it's one of her favorite places on campus. These days, however, she has come to see the pathway in a new light.
"It's funny," said Chun. "The USNA named a building after an expert in light and is, at the same time, doing bad deeds in the dark." Chun is making a veiled reference, based on her experience, to the ways in which the Naval Academy awards tenure.
Yard-wide ("Yard" is academy vernacular for campus) in 2021, 11 men and four women, including Chun, applied for tenure. Ten of those men and no women were successful. (The lone male denied tenure was from the math department.) Chun explains: "There are 3,003 scenarios where 10 people can be chosen from the 15 applicants, and only 11 scenarios where all 10 are men. All things being equal, the chance that the top 10 applicants would all be male is 11 out of 3,003." Or, as Chun calculates it, the likelihood that gender discrimination occurred in the tenure process last year is over 99.6%.
"This is a straightforward, discrete math problem that my students would compute for you."
This past fall, according to numbers provided by the USNA public affairs department, a total of 299 civilians had tenure; 223 were white — with 219 being white men — and 23 were Asian (seven were women). Moreover, there are 12 full math professors in the department, nine of which are male. Nine men and four women are associate professors (the second-highest rank), and out of 13 assistant professors, seven are male. "It's telling that, at the highest level, women comprise only 25% of the faculty," said Chun. "At the middle level, it's 31%, and at the lowest level, it's 46%. This suggests that women are being held back compared with our male counterparts."
The USNA is a storied service academy where the Honor Concept and Uniform Code of Military Justice have shaped generations of military officers and war heroes. It's also a place where military and civilian instructors teach side-by-side. Chun, a civilian, operates by her own code of honor and integrity, as she sees it. And since 2020, she has cast herself as a one-woman brigade, seeking justice within the academy. When her campaign eventually ends, and however it ends, Chun's objective is to bring real change to the academy.
The road to the academy
Chun's father, Keith Chun, a trivia ringer who won $12,801 as a contestant on "Jeopardy!" in 1987, is Asian American; her mother, Diane, who is white, was part of the third graduating class that allowed women at Princeton. Chun has a twin sister named Deb and two younger brothers. Growing up in a mixed-race family in their small New Jersey town, the sisters were often made fun of in school for being Chinese, which Deb said provided them with a keen sense of right and wrong.
"Even when we were kids, we were very focused on fairness," Deb said.
In middle school, the sisters advanced through their math classes and participated in MathCounts (after-school math tests and an annual competition), where they were among the top scorers in their school. By eighth grade, having exhausted the math curriculum, they were provided private tutoring by the school. In high school the pair continued to excel at math, wrote poetry and stayed after school to work on an onion genome experiment with a researcher from Rutgers University. (Today, Deborah Chun, like Carolyn, is one of the few experts in the field of matroid theory, the study of combinatorial properties of collections of points in space; she's an associate professor and chair of the department of mathematics at West Virginia University Institute of Technology.)
Carolyn was the school's top scorer on the American High School Mathematics Exam in her junior year and one of the 20 winners of the Rutgers-Newark High School Poetry Contest in both her junior and senior years. She finished high school at 17 and attended Rutgers, graduating with a degree in math and physics after spending the summer between her junior and senior years at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, working on an accelerator physics project.
She married Michael Brown in 2011, and the couple have a boy and a girl, both under 4. Along with bachelor of science and master of science degrees, and a PhD, Chun also has a master of fine arts degree in creative writing. She quoted from Whitman and Yeats to explain the beauty of graphs and vertexes.
"I'm super into Yeats," she said. "Emotions don't become available to us until they're expressed. There's this palette that language gives us." Chun noted a symmetry in the two disciplines. "I see them as different ways to view and present truth. Truth becomes obvious when stated correctly. That's poetry. That's math."
Chun's path to the Naval Academy is also a lesson in geography. After earning a PhD in mathematics from Louisiana State University, she did six years of postdoctoral work, in New Zealand and London, submersing herself in matroid theory.
While at a conference on discrete mathematics in Germany, Chun met a woman in the USNA math department with whom she shared research interests. "She put USNA on the map for me," Chun told me. When she saw an opening at the academy, she decided to apply, eventually accepting a job offer and turning down an opportunity to teach in Botswana. She and Brown, who co-owns a company that builds and installs solar panels, were planning to have children, and with Chun's parents close by, it made practical sense to be on this continent.
"I was excited about serving — I view teaching as service — with women in male-dominated spaces," Chun said. "I love that my midshipmen and I both have the same boss — the Navy — and that we're colleagues of sorts. I respect their commitments to serve their country and admire the dedication and drive that they display every day. My school days are utterly aimless by comparison."
Even with a boss as orderly as the Navy, Chun said she didn't receive any training for working in an environment where most of the student body is male and on track to become naval officers. (She said that in a typical class of 24 students, perhaps two or three in the room are female.) She did, however, have what she calls vestigial training. "I learned how to evade my captors and which color spiders were safe to eat should I ever get lost in the jungle," she said.
Early on, she found the math department extremely collegial and her classrooms filled with engineering students. In her third semester, after completing a Google poll of other courses she'd be willing to instruct, Chun shifted to teaching other classes, where, instead of budding engineers, a lot of her students were cyber operations and information technology majors. "To them, I teach unpopular classes," she said. "Students say, 'Why do I have to take this class when I'm not going to need it later?'"
Chun noticed one day that women were underrepresented in her discrete-math class compared with the percentage of women at USNA. She remembered raising a question with this conundrum: Why are there so few women in STEM? Chun told her students that she had run some numbers, and it turned out that the women in her classes, on average, tested better than men. "After I had this conversation, they all wanted to know how the class did on their test," she said. "And the women did better."
Five students from that class complained on their written student opinion forms (SOFs), later read by both the chair of the math department and the department's performance evaluation committee. At the Naval Academy, midshipmen submit anonymous feedback through these forms toward the end of the semester for each course, providing their opinions on course content and the instructor.
"Their complaints said that I graded women differently from men," Chun said. "I was upset and disappointed." She also felt betrayed by the students who complained. "These guys have this 'no pain, no gain' when it comes to physical training, going to the gym and pushing a heavy bar up and down to work their deltoids," Chun said, "but they don't have the same 'no pain, no gain' mentality with academics."
Chun said that a person on the departmental promotion and tenure committee, which is made up of full professors, expressed worries that even the suggestion that Chun was giving preferential treatment to her female students would have much larger implications with the Yard-wide tenure committee. The concern would prove to be prophetic. After teaching at the academy for 4½ years, Chun applied for tenure in 2020.
"I was really optimistic about my chances," said Chun, who had the support of her department. According to the academy's Annual Performance Review Expectations, sent annually by Provost Andrew Phillips, "One requirement for the granting of tenure (and promotion to the rank of Associate Professor, as appropriate) is that a faculty member must have completed a minimum of five years of college-level teaching experience following receipt of the terminal degree (Ph.D. or equivalent)."
Chun's college-level teaching experience came in at just under the five-year mark, but she had six years of postdoctoral work, which included teaching. "A senior colleague told me that I deserved tenure, but the Yard-wide committee was an unknown quantity," said Chun. "I figured I had a 50-50 shot. I knew it was considered an early application, but I also knew that people on the math faculty all come in with postdoc experience."
About two months later, she learned in a phone call from math chair Vrej Zarikian that she did not receive the promotion. "I was disappointed," she said.
In April 2020, Chun met with the members of the promotion and tenure committee for her outbrief, a meeting granted to faculty candidates who were not recommended for promotion. Vice Provost Dan O'Sullivan, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said in his outbrief letter that the decision was based on her student opinion forms and the committee's claim that there were "several courses in which Professor Chun appeared to have poor rapport with the class or a cohort within the class." When Chun learned this, "I immediately thought back to those five student complaints and the conversation I had had with the departmental committee member."
In her outbrief meeting, Chun questioned O'Sullivan about the use of student opinion forms, asking if there was a mechanism in place to ensure that bias, implicit or explicit — particularly student bias — doesn't affect tenure package review. According to Chun, O'Sullivan told her that the committee members have access to articles about bias in student opinion forms. Chun then pressed, asking, according to her notes from that meeting, "Other than this education that you do on a voluntary basis, is there any mechanism in place?" O'Sullivan said that there is not.
Chun filed an 18-page appeal to Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the Naval Academy superintendent, submitting a letter along with copies of her classroom visitation reports. In one, a senior faculty member who visited Chun's Discrete Math and Probability class wrote, "The atmosphere of the class was professional and relaxed. Prof Chun communicated her enthusiasm for mathematics and the students seemed to enjoy the lesson." Later, the same senior faculty member noted, "Chun also talked to me about how she strives to broaden midshipmen's perception of mathematics and make them aware of more advanced subjects than they encounter in their core courses. I think this is a very valuable aspect of her teaching and contributes directly to the mathematics department's mission to open our students' minds to the power, beauty, and utility of mathematics."
Buck denied her appeal in a letter dated June 30, 2020. (Cmdr. Alana Garas, Buck's public affairs officer, wrote in an email, "Carolyn Chun's case is still active; it would be inappropriate for Vice Adm. Buck to provide any comment on [this] story.")
At that point, Chun filed a complaint with the Naval Academy's Equal Employment Opportunity Office. Chun alleged that O'Sullivan and Paul Mikulski (co-chair of the tenure committee, who didn't respond to emails asking for comment), discriminated against her in the decision of her tenure application. According to Chun, "The EEO told Paul and Dan my name and my accusations of sex discrimination and asked them to comment on my accusations." (The office didn't resolve her complaint until March 2021, and a representative of the office found that Chun had not filed the complaint in a timely manner.) O'Sullivan and Mikulski did not comment on Chun's accusations of sex discrimination, and the USNA would not comment on this process.
"I felt like they were holding me to a standard that was disadvantaging me," Chun said. "I could see that the characterization of my teaching was wrong and that the people most negatively impacted by the overreliance on SOFs were the underrepresented groups to which I belong."
Research on student ratings
In a 2014 article published in the journal Innovative Higher Education titled "What's in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching," authors Lillian MacNell, Adam Driscoll and Andrea Hunt write: "Student ratings of teaching play a significant role in career outcomes for higher education instructors. Although instructor gender has been shown to play an important role in influencing student ratings, the extent and nature of that role remains contested." In the article, their analysis showed that "Students rated the male identity significantly higher than the female identity, regardless of the instructor's actual gender, demonstrating gender bias. Given the vital role that student ratings play in academic career trajectories, this finding warrants considerable attention."
Two years later, Anne Boring, an economist and the lead author of a 2016 paper published in ScienceOpen titled "Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness," performed new analysis of the gender-switch study mentioned above and found that when they ran statistical tests on U.S. university students, the female students rated the instructors they believed to be male more highly across the board. The same instructor received higher marks as Paul than as Paula. In a 2016 article for NPR's website, reporter Anya Kamenetz extrapolated Boring's findings this way: "Student evaluations are systematically biased against women — so much so, in fact, that they're better mirrors of gender bias than of what they are supposed to be measuring: teaching quality."
Generally, female faculty of color fare even worse. In her research report "Race and Gender Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching," Therese Huston found that women received significantly lower course evaluations than male instructors and that faculty of color received lower course evaluations than their white peers. Female faculty of color, Huston reported, received particularly low course evaluations. "It's a deep-seated tradition," Huston said. "We value students' perceptions."
According to Huston, whose book "Let's Talk: Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower" reveals how to curb gender and racial bias in feedback, committees put a lot of faith in one question: Would I recommend this professor to another student? Whether they know it or not, Huston said, students award their teachers with what she calls "idiosyncrasy credits," the number of points that an individual can deviate from the group's expectations. "They see a white man in uniform and think, 'That's what a professor looks like. You met my expectations.'"
On the other hand, she said, "If you're Asian, petite, young and female, you've used up a lot of idiosyncrasy credits." Huston cited a study that looked at 39,000 teachers listed on the site Rate My Professors. Asian women were rated less humorous, less inspirational, too lecture-heavy, and unfair or harder in their grading. "If she is defying your perspective norm," Huston said of Chun's situation, "she is penalized more."
"Of course," Huston added, "there continues to be some debate about whether women always receive lower ratings, such as in a recent study led by Michael Rivera at Temple University [‘Are Traditional Performance Reviews Outdated? An Empirical Analysis on Continuous, Real-Time Feedback in the Workplace,’ published last year in the journal Information Systems Research], but the vast majority of studies will confirm what we've long suspected: There is racial and gender bias in feedback."
Ultimately, Huston said, research shows that student evaluations don't reflect teaching. They do, however, reflect bias.
Another try for tenure
With the unanimous support from her department, Chun applied for tenure a second time in January 2021. She implemented the feedback from her 2020 outbrief and requested additional comments (using Google polls) from her students during the semester regarding class format. Chun summarized her efforts in her teaching reflections as part of the tenure application.
In March, Zarikian called her at home and informed her that she'd been turned down again. Chun said she was speechless.
"I 100% believed I was getting tenure," she said. "One hundred percent of my colleagues in the math department told me that I was 100% getting tenure, that I was a shoo-in." (One of the full professors in her department, who asked not to be named, confirmed this unanimous recommendation.) She said that one of her math department colleagues told her that if Chun didn't get tenure, he'd quit his job in protest. (He did not.)
In his outbrief letter this time around, Vice Provost O'Sullivan stated: "Open and constructive reflection on student feedback, can often lead to a teaching innovation that captures a cohort of students that may not have been engaged previously. ... Assistant Professor Chun's teaching reflections left the committee unclear as to whether Assistant Professor Chun is fully engaged in this aspect of the teaching process. The Committee needs to hear directly from Assistant Professor Chun in her reflections on teaching, this forward-looking perspective (reflecting on the finished semester in preparation for the next)."
After she learned that no woman received tenure in 2021, Chun ratcheted up her mission to include other women in the same situation. "I hunted out the names of the other people who were denied and formed a sort of support group with them to consider our different cases and plan a way forward together," she said.
"If I was being treated unfairly, I suspected others were being treated unfairly," she said. "I wanted those mistreated by the system to have an advocate. Dealing with the fallout became my full-time job. ... Correcting the mistake, finding other allies." Chun eventually enlisted three women in filing a joint appeal, feeling that showing a unified front would be more persuasive. (The appeals for the others all share the same cover letter; their individual attachments are different.)
Chun filed a formal 98-page appeal of the promotion and tenure committee's decision to Buck in June, submitted in solidarity with three other professors, all of whom, through Chun, asked to remain anonymous out of concern for damaging their careers. In her appeal, Chun remained focused on the role the student opinion forms seemed to play. "The bias within the metric used to determine tenure outcomes is evidence of gender discrimination," Chun argued in her opening.
Chun felt "somewhat removed from the personal-ness of the reviews, like something died when I didn't get tenure, and these documents are the body of that thing, and this appeal is like an autopsy to find the cause of death and show that it was murder and not natural causes."
Chun's appeal states that in her career at the Naval Academy, she received the same high marks in the three areas that determine tenure: teaching, scholarship and service.
In the 2015-16 academic year, for example, former department chair and supervisor Will Traves noted that under teaching and classroom work, "Chun did an immense amount of preparation for her course, creating beamer [slide] presentations and handouts for each class. These were well received by the students. She clearly connected with many of her students who praised her friendliness and positive attitude as well as her knowledge and passion for the material." He also wrote that "several midshipmen commented that she gives clear explanations and is 'not afraid to spend extra time on a subject when people are confused,' both characteristics of strong teaching." (Through an email, Traves declined to comment further.)
In 2018, Chun "received near universal praise in the Student Opinion Forms for revising the curriculum for a SM242 [Discrete Math and Probability] and used a combination of worksheets and slides that she developed to teach the course. This approach required a significant investment in time outside of the classroom on her part," according to her performance evaluation. Her teaching and service were deemed "Fully Successful," while her scholarship received the highest rating of "Outstanding."
When Traves completed his term as department chair, he handpicked Vrej Zarikian as his successor. In Chun's 2019 annual performance review, Zarikian, who declined to be interviewed for this story, wrote, "Prof. Chun continues to be a very effective instructor while diversifying her teaching portfolio." He recognized that students appreciated "how much outside investment she put into teaching." Chun's student opinion forms, he continued, were "very positive," with students "praising her knowledge, communication skills, and passion."
As part of her tenure appeal, Chun included five recent articles on the subject of bias in student opinion forms, including two that were emailed, Yard-wide, to all faculty inboxes (including those on the tenure committee) from Karyn Sproles, dean of faculty development. The first, sent by Sproles on Feb. 18, 2021, is an "expansive" metastudy of 100 other studies on bias in student evaluations. Quoting from Inside Higher Ed's reporting, Sproles summarized the findings in the body of her email:
"Crucially, the paper urges administrators to restrict or eliminate the use of qualitative or write-in comments, which have the 'strongest evidence of equity bias.' Over and over again, women and faculty members of color have been shown to receive more negative comments about personality traits, appearance, mannerisms, competence and professionalism, according to the study."
Chun also included an email Sproles sent on Nov. 15, 2019, this one citing an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that centered on the ways in which professors' gender influences how students perceive them. "This is a fascinating piece that confirms what I have been noticing in our student evaluations," Sproles wrote.
"Students can tell us things that no one else can," Sproles said. "Such as if the environment in the classroom is conducive to learning."
One of the articles Sproles sent to faculty concluded that there was "no demonstrable correlation between student feedback and student learning." Moreover, the use of student feedback for career-critical decisions is strongly discouraged by at least 18 professional organizations, including the American Sociological Association and the American Historical Association. Some schools have stopped using them entirely, most notably the University of Southern California and Ryerson University in Toronto, where the use of student feedback in promotion and tenure decisions is considered an illegal form of discrimination.
Amy Ksir, a math professor who specializes in algebraic geometry, began teaching at the Naval Academy in 2003, receiving tenure in 2007. In the classroom visitation report included in Chun's 2021 appeal, Ksir noted that Chun's teaching — asking her students to think about what kinds of problems might be on the test rather than just telling them — is "all well-known to promote deep, lasting learning," she wrote. Ksir thinks Chun deserved tenure. "It's been bad for morale," she sai of the academy's rejection. "It's harder to be a cheerleader [for the academy]. I didn't used to feel that way, and now I do."
David Joyner, who retired from the math department in 2018 after more than 30 years there, said that before stepping down he considered becoming the department chair. "I went to the provost, Andrew Phillips" — Phillips didn't respond to multiple email requests for an interview — "and told him I wanted to open up the conversation about eliminating SOFs from use in promotion and tenure decisions." According to Joyner, Phillips said that that wouldn't work and that they were not interested in finding another way to evaluate professors.
Joyner knows Chun well and hopes any noise her appeal attracts, both internally and externally, "will benefit women and people in general," he said. "For a woman to attend the Naval Academy, it takes enormous guts."
‘I knew I couldn’t stay’
One of the women who added her name to Chun's joint appeal after being denied tenure last year declined to be named out of concern for her job security. A person of color and a member of the LGBTQ community, she moved to Annapolis in 2015, leaving a tenured position at another university for her job at the academy.
When she was first interviewed for the teaching position, she said, she knew she was being recruited to fill a specific need – enlisted to "help usher in a transformative curriculum and attitude" in the post-"don't ask, don't tell" Naval Academy. Yet despite some initial pushback from students over what they called a "liberal agenda," her evaluations from 2019-2021, when she applied for tenure, were very good, she said. "The promotion committee said that there were no problems with my application materials or with any of my accomplishments," she told me. "The bias I experienced was around the tenure process itself."
The problem, she continued, was that two people from the tenure committee observed her class (held via Google Meet because of the pandemic), and one of them reported that her class was, "too quiet, began late, and finished early."
She was incredulous. "I began class with a mental health check-in” in accordance with online pedagogy, she said, and reserved time at the end for meetings with students who desired more individual attention.
"The bigger problem is that the committee overruled my whole record," she said. "I'm talking about my annual performance ratings by my department chair, teaching observations by senior colleagues, my advising work with student sports teams — they decided that the concerns voiced in these snapshots, these 75-minute teaching observations, were enough evidence to prove that I did not deserve a promotion. And they considered that fair treatment."
She appealed the committee's decision but had not heard anything back when interviewed for this article. On the day of the interview, she resigned from her job at USNA and accepted a teaching position at another university. "It was quite emotional and not an easy decision to uproot my life," she said. "But deep down I knew I couldn't stay.
"The thing that turned it sour," she said of her decision to leave, "was this rotten system within the institution that ignores and overrules the will of the people who mentored me, who understand my research, and who work the closest with me." She said she would have stayed if she thought the process was fair or if it wasn't going to take so much out of her to try to change it. "There are people with power and seniority who know this tenure system is flawed, but they're sitting on their hands," she said. "I shouldn't have to fight these battles for them. They should fight for me."
Other departures might be imminent. "If I'm going to be let go because I point out that the system is biased, then I'm OK with that," Chun said. "I keep saying there's bias, and people keep saying there's bias, and I want to put my money where my mouth is."
Chun figures it may take years for her to become a full professor at the Academy, when she might be able to effect change from within the system. "I won't be complicit until then," she said. "There is a lack of justice here."
While waiting for Buck's decision on her appeal, Chun contacted Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., who chairs the academy's Board of Visitors. Chun is asking Ruppersberger's office to look into why there is currently no rubric to decide on the criteria for awarding tenure when the prior committee had created and used one. Ruppersberger's office did not respond to multiple emails asking for comment.
In October, Chun received Buck's judgment, dated Aug. 30, in which he supported the tenure committee's findings and its decision to deny Chun promotion and tenure a second time.
She responded by seeking legal representation from Jason Ehrenberg, a lawyer specializing in Title IX investigations, tenure denials and academic dismissals. Ehrenberg has had plenty of experience at the Naval Academy, most notably representing English professor Bruce Fleming, who, among other transgressions, was fired for sending his students shirtless photos from his modeling days. Ehrenberg successfully represented five military service members facing sexual assault charges before military tribunals (including three academy football players charged in 2013 with raping a female midshipman).
"I have a strong connection to the Navy," Ehrenberg said. "It's just that the Navy is not always happy about it."
Ehrenberg is assisting Chun with two complaints that she filed with the Naval Academy's Equal Employment Opportunity Office (stemming from each tenure decision). The first claim is pending an assignment of an EEO administrative judge. A backlog of cases, coupled with pandemic delays, means a longer wait. The second claim, filed in early December, is awaiting an investigation of evidence. Ehrenberg hopes to have a resolution of the first claim in six months.
Should the case not be resolved to Chun's satisfaction, Ehrenberg said, there is a good chance her gender discrimination claims would ultimately be heard in front of a U.S. district court judge, since Chun is a civilian employee of the Defense Department.
For now, Chun is staying open to other possibilities, including applying for tenure again this year. "Part of me wants to leave to do good work elsewhere," she said, "and part of me wants to stay because they want me to leave."