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UT Austin professor awarded $3 million in pregnancy and sex discrimination suit

University of Texas.JPG
Allie Goulding
/
The Texas Tribune
The University of Texas at Austin tower on July 16, 2020.

A jury awarded Evdokia Nikolova damages for past and future pain and suffering after finding UT Austin illegally discriminated against her when the school denied her tenure.

A federal jury has awarded a University of Texas at Austin engineering professor $3 million after finding the school discriminated against her based on her sex and the fact she was pregnant prior to being considered for tenure.

Evdokia Nikolova, who still works at the university as an assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department, was awarded $1 million for past pain and suffering and $2 million in future damages, plus $50,000 in back pay and benefits last week by a federal jury in Austin. The judge in the case must still approve the verdict.

Nikolova applied for tenure during the 2018-2019 academic year after working nearly five years at UT Austin and two years at Texas A&M University. In her lawsuit, she stated she had been told that her teaching experience at Texas A&M could be counted toward her total time as a professor, which is not UT-Austin policy.

Despite Nikolova being unanimously approved for tenure by the Cockrell School of Engineering, Sharon Wood — the current UT-Austin provost and former dean of the engineering school — denied the tenure request arguing that Nikolova did not have requisite years of teaching to be considered for it.

Tenure requests typically occur after a professor has taught for seven years. Wood pointed out that Nikolova had taken a “probationary extension” and “modified instructional duty” for pregnancy and childbirth during the 2015-2016 year and therefore was making the request too early.

Probationary extensions allow male and female assistant professors who have a new child an additional year during tenure review period. Professors who have a new child or adopt a child can take modified instructional duty, which allows them to not teach for a semester.

“[I]f this were an up-or-out case, I would likely agree with the recommendation of the Promotion and Tenure committee. However, Dr. Nikolova is being considered for promotion at UT Austin two years early.”

An up-and-out policy, with specifics that can vary by institution, is when a person is required to be considered for tenure and it is either awarded the distinction or the professor is removed.

Nikolova filed the suit against UT-Austin in 2019.

Bob Schmidt, a lawyer for Nikolova, said he is pleased the jury sided with his client.

“Discrimination against women and mothers is still real in our society in general,” Schmidt said. “If discrimination goes unchecked, if it's just allowed to be looked over at UT Austin — which is one of our state's most powerful, big institutions and universities — then it can happen anywhere.”

UT Austin did not respond to The Texas Tribune’s request for comment.

In a statement to the publication Inside Higher Ed, the university said it will “continue to examine ways to improve our processes and will implement any required steps to comply with the verdict.” In court documents, the university denied it treated Nikolova unfairly.

It is not clear if UT Austin will appeal the decision.

Nikolova’s suit pointed out that in the period since she first interviewed at the university, nine male professors had received tenure while both women, including her, who went up for tenure in the same time period were denied.