Va. Tech grants tenure to lesbian professor after controversy
November 06 2003 12:00 AM ET
Virginia Tech has made Shelli Fowler a fully tenured faculty member more than a year after rejecting her nomination by the administration, a decision that led to claims of antigay sentiment. The university's governing board cited budget constraints last year as the reason for rejecting Fowler's appointment to a tenured teaching post. Fowler is the lesbian partner of graduate dean Karen DePauw, who was recruited from Washington State University. After months of protest, the board hired Fowler for a nontenured job last year--moments before it revised the university's antidiscrimination clause to remove protections for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.
On Monday, Fowler was named director of the Graduate Education Development Institute and an associate professor of English. She was chosen as director after a competitive search. "I'm very pleased, and I'm looking forward to continuing the work I've been doing at Tech," she said. Fowler declined to speculate on whether her appointment had any political significance.
"I hope this decision signals a policy shift at Virginia Tech toward a more inclusive environment," former Tech associate professor Megan Boler said. Boler left Tech for the University of Toronto earlier this year because of what she deemed "broad climate issues" aggravated by Fowler's rejection.
Fowler was originally offered a tenured position in the English department last year as part of Tech's recruitment of DePauw. Fowler was an award-winning professor at Washington State before the couple moved to Blacksburg, Va. After a private meeting in June 2002, members of Tech's board of visitors removed Fowler's name from a list of appointees. In a statement the board later said it would have been inappropriate to hire someone without a competitive search when state budget cuts were forcing Tech to reduce faculty positions.
Board rector John Rocovich also said he opposed couple and spousal hires--a recruitment tool occasionally used at Tech and other colleges nationwide. Some professors and students said the unusual decision to reject a proposed candidate was discriminatory and demanded that the board honor the original offer. Months later Fowler was appointed to a yearlong term as project director of the institute, which helps graduate students learn education techniques using the latest teaching technologies.