Okla.: DOJ Sues State University for Denying Tenure to Transgender Professor

By Rosemarie Lally Jun 9, 2015

The U.S. Justice Department has filed suit against an Oklahoma state university on behalf of a professor who changed gender during her tenure with the university and claims that the school discriminated against her on the basis of gender identity.

The employee, Rachel Tudor, was hired by Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 2004 as a tenure-track assistant professor in its English department. Tudor applied as a man with a traditionally male name. In 2007, Tudor told university officials that she was transitioning from male to female. At that time, Tudor took the name Rachel and began to wear women’s clothing and a traditionally feminine hairstyle.

A human resources staffer allegedly warned Tudor that the school’s vice president for academic affairs had asked whether Tudor could be fired on the basis that the “transgender lifestyle” offended his religious beliefs. The vice president’s sister, who was director of the university’s counseling center, also allegedly warned Tudor that there was hostility toward transgender individuals and that her brother considered them a “grave offense to his [religious] sensibilities,” according to the lawsuit.

Although Tudor had been awarded the Faculty Senate Recognition Award for Excellence in Scholarship for the 2010-2011 academic year and had the support of her department chair and the tenure review committee, her application for tenure was denied by a university dean and the vice president. No reason was provided for the denial and she was fired in 2011 for failing to obtain tenure.

The complaint alleges that a male faculty member in the English department was contemporaneously treated very differently, receiving guidance from school officials on how to improve his application for tenure. That colleague’s tenure application ultimately was successful.

Tudor’s federal discrimination complaint was taken up by the Department of Justice. The Obama administration had voiced its position on gender identity discrimination in a Dec. 14, 2014, memo issued by then-Attorney General Eric Holder. The memo stated that workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex.

The university is being represented by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office.

USA v. Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the Regional University System of Oklahoma, W.D. Okla., Case 5:15-cv-00324-C, March 30, 2015.

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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