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Isabelle Blasdel v. Northwestern University

April 14, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles P. Kocoras, District Judge:


This case comes before the Court on Defendant Northwestern University's ("Northwestern") motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons stated below, Northwestern's motion is granted.


Northwestern previously employed Plaintiff Isabelle Blasdel ("Blasdel") as an Associate Professor. In May of 2007, Northwestern informed Blasdel that it denied her tenure application and, thus, her employment would end on August 30, 2008.

On September 9, 2009, Blasdel filed a complaint against Northwestern, alleging gender discrimination and claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Court previously dismissed Count I of the complaint. Blasdel's remaining claim rests on Northwestern's alleged gender discrimination in denying Blasdel tenure and subsequently terminating her employment. Northwestern now moves for summary judgment on Blasdel's remaining claim. The following facts are undisputed for purposes of summary judgment.

Northwestern's Recruitment of Blasdel

From 1995 to 2002, Blasdel was an Assistant Professor at Boston University Medical School. During that time, Blasdel published no papers from 1997 to 2000, published one paper per year on average thereafter, and was first author on three papers between 1995 and 2002. While employed at Boston University, Blasdel sent a letter to Dr. James Surmeier ("Dr. Surmeier"), the Chair of the Department of Physiology at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine ("FSM"), indicating her interest in a position.

Dr. Surmeier and Blasdel discussed the possibility of Blasdel joining Northwestern as an Assistant Professor, rather than the higher rank of Associate Professor, with a six-year tenure clock (i.e., the time before a tenure-eligible faculty member must apply for tenure). An incoming faculty member's proposed rank and tenure clock must be approved by the FSM Appointment, Promotions, and Tenure Committee ("FSM APT Committee"), FSM's Dean, and Northwestern's Provost.

Dr. Surmeier submitted a conditional offer letter to FSM's Executive Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, Dr. James Young ("Dr. Young"), setting forth the proposed terms of Blasdel's employment. Dr. Surmeier proposed that Northwestern hire Blasdel as an Assistant Professor with a six-year tenure clock. Dr. Young responded that the Provost was not likely to approve the recommendation of a six-year tenure clock, since Blasdel had already spent seven years as an Assistant Professor at Boston University. Dr. Surmeier then revised the conditional offer letter and proposed that Northwestern hire Blasdel as an Assistant Professor with a four-year tenure clock. The FSM APT Committee recommended approving Blasdel's appointment, but expressed reservations about Blasdel's publication record, stating that "she has failed to cross important academic milestones in a timely manner," which was "worrying for someone who will start at the Assistant Professor rank again at another institution."

In February 2003, the Provost reviewed Blasdel's appointment materials and also expressed concerns about Blasdel's publication record and the length of time already spent as an Assistant Professor at Boston University. In response to the Provost's concerns, Dr. Surmeier reiterated his faith that Blasdel would flourish at Northwestern and meet the standards for tenure in a short time. The Provost later approved Blasdel's appointment as an Associate Professor with a four-year tenure clock.

By May 2003, before beginning her appointment in a tenure-eligible position, Blasdel knew she had four years to achieve tenure at Northwestern, even though the initial, conditional offer letter provided for a six-year tenure clock. At the time of hire, Blasdel did not request that Northwestern consider her for tenure and was satisfied with her four-year tenure clock and rank as an Associate Professor.

During her recruitment, Blasdel and Dr. Surmeier discussed employment opportunities for Blasdel's husband, Gary Blasdel. To make Blasdel's employment offer more attractive, Dr. Surmeier arranged for Gary Blasdel to interview at Northwestern and offered to pay half of Gary Blasdel's salary from the Physiology Department's budget.

Blasdel's hire package included $500,000 in start-up funds and $100,000, which Blasdel agreed to have distributed to her husband who was also hired by Northwestern. Blasdel also had access to graduate students and post-graduate trainees to work in her lab. Additionally, Plaintiff had approximately 900 square feet of laboratory space, which Plaintiff thought was a good size.

Blasdel's appointment as an Associate Professor, and her four-year tenure clock, began on September 1, 2003. At that point, Blasdel was well into her ninth year in an academic research position.

Blasdel's Employment at Northwestern

Blasdel's primary responsibility was to perform independent scientific research. Blasdel also understood her responsibility to obtain extramural funding. When Blasdel arrived at Northwestern, she had one source of extramural funding, which expired in November 2003. While at Northwestern, Blasdel received only one other grant with extramural funding. Blasdel never submitted a grant proposal to Dr. Surmeier for review or feedback.

In 2004, during her annual evaluation, Dr. Surmeier told Blasdel that he did not think her plateau potential research, which was not extramurally funded, was a good project. Dr. Surmeier also expressed concerns about Blasdel's failure to publish any papers since arriving at Northwestern and about Blasdel's progression in her career. Along with another struggling project, Blasdel continued to work on the plateau potential project against Dr. Surmeier's advice.

As of June or July of 2005, Blasdel had not published any papers since 2002. At the time, Dr. Surmeier told Blasdel she was in trouble and needed to focus on her drug addiction research, which was extramurally funded. Despite Dr. Surmeier's advice, Blasdel continued to work on her plateau potential project. In January 2006, nearly three years after arriving at Northwestern, Blasdel published her first article. Northwestern's Recruitment of Dr. Bevan

Around the same time Dr. Surmeier was recruiting Blasdel, he was also recruiting Dr. Mark Bevan ("Dr. Bevan"), who had been an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee since 2000. Prior to his employment, Dr. Bevan commented to Dr. Surmeier about Blasdel's questioning of a guest lecturer, stating "Man, that Isabelle is scary!!!!" In 2003, Dr. Bevan was appointed as an Associate Professor, with a six-year tenure clock, and began on the same day as Blasdel.

The Lurie Building

During Blasdel's recruitment, FSM prepared grant materials to obtain funding from the National Institutes of Health ("NIH") to build lab space for a group of neuroscientists in the Lurie Building. The grant application listed six investigators who would be located on the proposed neuroscience floor, including Dr. Surmeier, Dr. Bevan, Blasdel, and three others. As of April 2003, Dr. Surmeier planned for Dr. Bevan and Blasdel to share laboratory space in the Lurie Building. However, by October 2003, Dr. Surmeier determined that the Lurie Building did not have enough space for him, Dr. Bevan, and Blasdel. For this reason, Blasdel did not move her lab to the Lurie Building. Blasdel was not the only individual who could not move into the Lurie Building, as two male scientists, also named in the Lurie grant application, did not move into the building.

The Udall Center

Before Blasdel's employment at Northwestern, Dr. Surmeier discussed with Blasdel his desire for Blasdel to collaborate with the members of a program funded by NIH to research Parkinson's Disease, now known as the "Udall Center." Blasdel and Dr. Surmeier discussed the possibility of Blasdel submitting a supplemental grant application after her arrival at Northwestern.

In 2003, Blasdel presented her work to the Udall Center members. Dr. Surmeier was the Principal Investigator and Dr. Bevan was a co-investigator of the Udall Center. Drs. Bevan and Wilson ("Dr. Wilson") challenged Blasdel's work after the presentation, perceiving significant shortcomings. According to Blasdel, Dr. Bevan called her work "shit," and Dr. Wilson stated that Blasdel "[didn't] know what [she was] doing."*fn1 After that meeting, when Blasdel expressed that she was not getting enough scientific feedback from Drs. Bevan and Wilson, Dr. Surmeier told Blasdel that he understood her "emotional need" to be heard.

In 2004, Dr. Surmeier e-mailed Dr. Wilson, stating that he wanted to add Blasdel to their group and "there is no question [Blasdel] is combative." Blasdel admittedly benefitted from feedback given by the Udall Center members and revised her methodologies. Dr. Surmeier invited Blasdel to a second meeting with the Udall Center members to present her revised work in the spring of 2004. Drs. Bevan and Wilson continued to question Blasdel's work. By 2004, there was a major scientific disagreement between Blasdel and Drs. Bevan and Wilson.

In February 2004, Dr. Surmeier told Blasdel she should not submit a supplemental grant application at that time and should consider preparing an application for the next cycle. Blasdel never submitted a supplemental grant proposal to Dr. Surmeier. By the fall of 2004, Dr. Surmeier no longer invited Blasdel to participate in the Udall Center meetings.

In 2003 and 2004, Dr. Surmeier met with several faculty members at Northwestern, including three males and one female, to discuss the possibility of those faculty members developing new projects for the Udall Center. While two male faculty members submitted written proposals to Dr. Surmeier in 2004, Dr. ...

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