Former Pomona College theater professor Alma Martinez is suing Pomona, alleging that she was dismissed and denied tenure because of discrimination against Latinos and women on campus.
Martinez filed the lawsuit in the Superior Court of Los Angeles on Aug. 20 with the help of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a nonprofit organization that provides civil rights advocacy for the Latino community.
“At all times during her employment, Martinez was fully qualified for her position and was performing her job duties well,” MALDEF said in the complaint it filed. “Pomona College subjected Martinez to discrimination on the basis of her national origin and gender.”
Pomona has denied that discrimination played a role in the decision.
“Pomona College has one of the most diverse faculties, in terms of both gender and race, of any college of its type in the country,” the college said in a press release. “The tenure review process at Pomona is designed to be both exhaustive and fair.”
College officials were unable to give any specific information as the case is ongoing.
MALDEF staff attorney Matthew Barragan, one of Martinez’s lawyers, said that another reason for filing the suit is “to remove the cloak of secrecy” that Pomona is able to maintain over its tenure proceedings because of its status as a private college. He added that MALDEF hopes the litigation will illuminate the reasons for “other decisions they have made with respect to Latinos at the university,” but he did not clarify whether MALDEF plans to raise the issue of the 2011 firing of 17 undocumented immigrant workers.
When Martinez was officially denied tenure, she was not given access to the internal document containing information about the decision.
“They just gave her very generic language that she did not meet the criteria,” Barragan said.
Martinez joined Pomona’s faculty as a tenure-track assistant professor in 2007. Best known for her acting role in the 1981 movie Zoot Suit, Martinez was a tenured associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 2001 to 2007.
She earned many academic awards, including a 1999 Smithsonian Research Fellowship and a 2006 Fulbright Grant. In 2008, while at Pomona, she earned a $10,000 Irvine Grant for her Zoot Suit Educational Outreach project.
In fall 2011, the Department of Theatre and Dance unanimously recommended Martinez for tenure. As assistant professors are normally recommended for tenure within their sixth year at Pomona, the timing of the recommendation was standard.
“Yes, the department recommended that she be tenured, and personally, was I surprised that the college overturned the decision? Yes, I was,” said James Taylor, Department of Theatre and Dance Chair.
The college informed Martinez of her denied tenure bid and termination on Jan. 18, and her final day of work was on June 30.
The department intends to hire a new faculty member to replace Martinez, but it will wait until next year before beginning the search.
The suit maintains that Martinez pursued all available administrative routes to protest the decision before going to court. Martinez’s lawyers seek to have her reinstated as a tenured professor.
“Discrimination in the tenure process has a negative impact on the students, because professors serve as role models for students, especially Latino students, and when they see a professor being denied these positions, it discourages them from pursuing their own ambitions in academia, and it continues this long pattern of underrepresentation in university faculty,” Barragan said.
At Pomona, 44 percent of full-time professors are women, and 30 percent are people of color, according to faculty data published online by the college. In 2011, 21 of the college’s 178 tenured and tenure-track professors were Latino (11.8 percent), according to data compiled by the American Association of University Professors.
Most of these professors have been with the school for many years, however, and there have been few recent hires of Latino faculty. Since 1997, only three out of 66 tenured or tenure-track faculty members hired by Pomona were Latino (4.5 percent). Two were hired in 1997, and the other was hired in 2005. Twenty-four of the 66 tenured or tenure-track faculty hires were female.
Pomona does have the fourth-highest percentage of underrepresented minority tenured and tenure-track faculty members among peer institutions, according to a survey from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The tenure review process at Pomona is a lengthy affair. The candidate must be recommended by the department to the Faculty Personnel Committee. Based on an affirmative vote by the committee, the president nominates the candidate for approval by the cabinet. Finally, the candidate must be affirmed by the Board of Trustees.