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Chen v. The Pennsylvania State University

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 8, 2018



          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge.

         Defendant, The Pennsylvania State University (“PSU”), moved for summary judgment on all counts of Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint. For the reasons that follow, that motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Yongsheng Chen, Ph.D., is an Asian scientist who was born in China.[1] In November 2007, he began working at PSU's College of Earth and Mineral Science (“EMS College”) as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering (“EME Department”).[2] In the fall of 2012, Dr. Chen applied for tenure.

         At PSU, tenure applications-referred to as “dossiers”-face several levels of review. They are evaluated by a committee composed of faculty members from the candidate's department (“Department Committee”); by the head of the candidate's department (“Department Head”); by a committee of faculty members from the candidate's college, one member of which is from the candidate's department (“College Committee”); and by the dean of the candidate's college (“Dean”)-in that order.[3] Each assessing body or administrator writes a letter recommending for, or against, a grant of tenure for each candidate.

         The reviewers evaluate each candidate in three areas. First, they consider the applicant's “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.” For tenure in the EME Department, this means that “[t]he applicant's teaching record should demonstrate an ability to convey the subject matter to students in an effective manner.” Second, the reviewers consider the applicant's “Scholarship of Research and Creative Accomplishment.” In the EME Department, “[t]he applicant should demonstrate an ability to carry out independent, high quality research[;] should have published significant contributions in recognized, refereed journals over the provisional period[; and] should also demonstrate the capability of supervising graduate-level thesis research.” And third, the reviewers consider the applicant's “Service and the Scholarship of Service to the University, Society[, ] and Profession.” Under this criterion, “[t]he applicant should show evidence of personal involvement in professional and learned societies and in department, college[, ] and university affairs.”[4]

         All five members of Dr. Chen's Department Committee voted in favor of granting him tenure, and that committee's letter rated him as “very good” in all three of the relevant areas. That committee noted his “satisfactory progress” in “supervising graduate students to completion, ” the “very favorable” letters from external reviewers (i.e., non-PSU affiliated academics who were asked to evaluate Dr. Chen's tenure dossier), and his “impressive” publication record.[5]

         Similarly, Dr. Chen's Department Head “strongly support[ed]” a grant of tenure, rating Dr. Chen “very good” in teaching and in service, and “excellent” in research. The Head specifically indicated that Dr. Chen “has become an effective teacher, ” and noted his “excellent record of publication.”[6]

         Despite these previous, unanimously favorable reviews, the five members of Dr. Chen's College Committee unanimously voted against tenure, characterizing Dr. Chen's record as “marginal across the board.” Although the College Committee rated his teaching as “good” and his service as “satisfactory but weak, ” the committee honed in on research as the “primary deficit in Dr. Chen's record.” Specifically, it noted that, during his time at PSU, Dr. Chen published only one “first-authored” paper-i.e., a paper on which his name appeared first in the list of authors-and only one paper on which a graduate student of his was first author. Further, it described Dr. Chen's graduate advising record as “disappointing” and claimed that external reviewers had raised “concerns” about Dr. Chen's record.[7]

         The Dean joined the College Committee in recommending against tenure, declaring that Dr. Chen “inspires little confidence.” Regarding Dr. Chen's teaching, the Dean first characterized the Department Committee and Head's earlier evaluations as “extrapolat[ing] that [Dr. Chen] will become an accomplished teacher in time.” The Dean then stated his belief that “that extrapolation [was] groundless, ” with “most of Dr. Chen's potential for improvement [already] realized, leaving us with, at best, a ‘good' teacher for the future.” Like the College Committee, the Dean also believed that Dr. Chen's research was “the area of greatest concern, ” and denigrated Dr. Chen's record of first-authored papers. The Dean also claimed that Dr. Chen had “little success in advising graduate students through to the completion of their degrees.”

         Seven other candidates from the EMS College-Jamal Rostami, Jonathan Mathews, Seth Blumsack, Peter LaFemina, Chris Forest, Erica Smithwick, and Michael Hickner-were up for tenure review at the same time as Dr. Chen. Three of these candidates-Drs. Rostami, Mathews, and Blumsack-were from the EME Department. All seven of those other candidates were Caucasian, and they all received tenure.[8] Dr. Chen's tenure application, however, was denied, and his employment with PSU ended in June 2014.[9]

         Dr. Chen sued PSU on June 9, 2015.[10] His operative complaint argues that, when denying him tenure, the university illegally discriminated against him on the basis of his race and national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”).[11]That complaint also argues that certain steps taken by the university during his tenure review violated contractual obligations owed to him.[12] On September 25, 2017, PSU moved for summary judgment on all of Dr. Chen's claims.[13]


         A. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is granted when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[14] A dispute is “genuine if a reasonable trier-of-fact could find in favor of the non-movant, ” and “material if it could affect the outcome of the case.”[15] To defeat a motion for summary judgment, then, the nonmoving party must point to evidence in the record that would allow a jury to rule in that party's favor.[16] When deciding whether to grant summary judgment, a court should draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.[17]

         B. Whether Dr. Chen Has Produced Sufficient Evidence to Establish a Prima Facie Case of Discrimination

         To prove his discrimination claims, [18] Dr. Chen must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination.[19] To do so, he must “show that he is a member of a protected class, that he was qualified for the position but nevertheless was rejected, and that non-members of the protected class were treated more favorably than he.”[20]

         PSU concedes that Dr. Chen is able to establish the first two prongs of this test.[21] As to the third prong, it is undisputed that seven out of the eight candidates up for review were Caucasian, and that they all received tenure. It is also undisputed that Dr. Chen, the only Asian candidate, was the only one denied tenure. Dr. Chen, therefore, has established his prima facie case.[22]

         C. Whether a Jury Could Conclude that PSU's Stated Reasons for Dr. Chen's Tenure Denial Were Merely Pretextual

         PSU's rationale for denying tenure to Dr. Chen is contained in the letters written by the College Committee and by the Dean.[23] Because these reasons are legitimate and non-discriminatory, Dr. Chen must point to evidence sufficient to allow a jury to conclude that these stated reasons were merely pretextual. Dr. Chen can satisfy this burden by “demonstrating[ing] such weakness, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherences, or contradictions in [PSU's rationale] that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them unworthy of credence and hence infer that [PSU] did not act for the asserted nondiscriminatory reasons.”[24]

         To begin with, Dr. Chen highlights the diametrically opposed reviews given by different levels of reviewers. As discussed above, all department-level reviewers-i.e., all members of the Department Committee and the Department Head-unanimously recommended that Dr. Chen be granted tenure. These recommendations were far from lukewarm: the Department Committee rated Dr. Chen's performance as “very good” across the board, and the Department Head “strongly support[ed]” Dr. Chen's tenure application while rating Dr. Chen's work as either “very good” or “excellent.” Conversely, the college-level reviewers-i.e., all members of the College Committee and the Dean-unanimously recommended that Dr. Chen be denied tenure. These recommendations were also far from tepid, depicting Dr. Chen as “marginal” and as “inspir[ing] little confidence.”

         Dr. Chen then juxtaposes the treatment of certain portions of his dossier with the treatment of corresponding portions of other candidates' dossiers. For example, the college-level reviewers all remarked unfavorably on the number of first-authored papers published by Dr. Chen. Two other candidates-Drs. Forest and LaFemina-also had only one first-authored paper in their dossiers. Dr. Forest's research activities, however, were uniformly praised by the college-level reviewers, [25] and Dr. LaFemina's record was explained away.[26]

         The college-level reviewers also described Dr. Chen's graduate advising record-he advised one Ph.D. student and one M.S. student through completion of their degrees-as “disappointing” and as having achieved “little success.” Candidates with similar advising records, however, were complimented. Dr. Forest, for example, was “noted” for his advising record, yet he completed only two M.S. students.[27]

         And the College Committee claimed that external reviewers raised “concerns” about Dr. Chen's record, even though those reviewers' letters, on balance, were all positive and complimentary.[28] In contrast, for Dr. Blumsack, the College Committee glossed over an unquestionably negative letter-one that stated that Dr. Blumsack “would likely not be promoted at [the reviewer's] current institution”[29]-by highlighting the positive comments made in that letter.[30]Specifically, the College Committee quoted the reviewer as mentioning Dr. Blumsack's “impressive number” of published papers.[31] The reviewer, however, actually noted that, while Dr. Blumsack seemed to have “an impressive number” of published papers, “none of [those] publications are in journals that would be considered first, second, or perhaps even third tier . . . .”[32]

         Finally, Dr. Chen points to inaccurate or inconsistent statements by the Dean. For example, the Dean characterized the Department Committee and Department Head's letters as “extrapolat[ing] that [Dr. Chen] will become an effective teacher, ” yet neither of those letters relied upon such “extrapolation” to rate Dr. Chen's teaching “very good”-and in fact the Department Head's letter stated that Dr. Chen “has become an effective teacher.”[33] Further, the Dean himself, in a letter written a few weeks before the tenure review process began, stated that Dr. Chen was “clearly an effective teacher.”[34] That same letter “congratulate[d]” Dr. Chen on his publication record and “look[ed] forward to a successful promotion and tenure outcome.”[35] These comments, of course, stand in stark contrast to the Dean's later vote against tenure and his description of Dr. Chen as “inspir[ing] little confidence.” As discussed above, at this stage, Dr. Chen must merely produce enough evidence to allow a jury to disbelieve the reasons given by the College Committee and Dean for denying him tenure. Dr. Chen has satisfied this burden. The disparity between college-level reviewers' assessments and the assessments of the department-level reviewers, combined ...

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