By Yes, Virginia • March 31, 2011•Other Law School Issues
I read with great interest in today's Careerist column about Harvard Law School granting tenure to Professor Jeannie Suk. Vivia Chen stated that she was surprised to learn that Professor Suk was the first Asian-American woman granted tenure at Harvard, and then looked briefly at the lack of diversity among female tenured professors at the school.
This is a fertile topic of conversation, but there was something that struck me as particularly interesting in the article. In the original post, Chen said:
"Call me naive, but I was genuinely shocked that this big, prestigious bastion of liberalism didn't have a tenured woman of Asian descent until this year. (Harvard announced Suk's tenure last fall.) The much smaller Yale Law School, which has 60 full-time faculty members to Harvard's 100, has two--Amy Chua and Jean Koh Peters."
(The article was corrected after this was written to state that Professor Koh Peters was actually a clinical professor, and thus not tenured, making Yale's population of tenured Asian-American professors the same as Harvard's: one.)
What caught my eye was the fact that by my unofficial count, these three women--Professors Suk, Koh Peters, and Chua--were all themselves married or related to other law professors. Professor Suk is married to Professor Noah Feldman, who came to Harvard as a tenured professor back in 2007 from NYU. Professor Chua, she of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother fame, is married to Yale Law Professor Jed Rubenfeld, who Above the Law describes as "a Yale law professor, overachiever, and certified hottie, just like his wife." Finally, Professor Koh Peters is the sister of former dean Harold Koh of Yale Law School (who is now the Legal Advisor to the Department of State).
So what to make of this? I know that academia, including law schools, often find positions for spouses of sought-after professors--it's how to get the really awesome professors that many schools are competing for. Even if the spouse is eminently qualified for the position (and all of these women certainly are, there's no doubt about that), does the fact that they have such superstar spouses or brothers who in at least one case preceeded them in obtaining tenure color their own achievements? (I don't know the timelines for Rubenfeld-Chua or the Kohs, but as I noted, Professor Feldman was given tenure before Professor Suk.) Getting a tenured position at the top two law schools in the country is beyond difficult, and there are many, many qualified candidates. If these women got a slight advantage, or more than a slight advantage, because the schools were either actively seeking or trying to hold on to their husbands/brother, doesn't that implicitly send the message that to be a top-flight female professor of Asian descent you also need a relative on the staff? And what about other female professors--how many of them are married or related to oter professors, and what effect did that have on their own careers in academia?