Monday, April 15, 2024 Apr 15, 2024
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UTSW Settles Discrimination Lawsuit With Renowned Scientist Dr. Ellen Vitetta

Other late-career female UTSW professors recount being gaslit into leaving their positions.
Courtesy: UT Southwestern Medical Center

Last summer, Ellen Vitetta was one of 60 women featured on a multimedia display at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center celebrating women trailblazers at the university. Only a few months after the display went live, she settled her lawsuit against UTSW for age and sex discrimination and retaliation.

The irony of UTSW’s celebration of a renowned scientist who happens to be suing the organization was not lost on Vitetta, who is one of several current and former UTSW employees who discussed a troubling work environment in the medical center. After years of legal battles and COVID-19 delays, Vitetta settled with the university for an undisclosed amount last fall. She initially asked for more than $1 million to cover legal fees, back pay, and other damages, but isn’t able to disclose the settlement details.

Courtesy: Ellen Vitetta

D CEO Healthcare spoke to multiple current and former female UTSW employees who shared similar stories of what they call gaslighting, discrimination, and unprofessional behavior by leadership at the university.

Vitetta is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at UTSW, holds the Scheryle Simmons Patigian Distinguished Chair in Cancer Immunobiology, is a Piper Professor, and is the first female Texan biomedical scientist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She was also elected to the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is a member of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, past President of the American Association of Immunologists and the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award,  among countless other awards. Importantly she has received over 15 teaching awards from the medical students at UTSW and trained a graduate student who won a Nobel Prize.

She was the director of the Cancer Immunobiology Center at UTSW for 25 years, the author of more than 550 publications, and one of the most cited biomedical scientists in the world. She has worked on cancer therapy drugs and developed a vaccine for ricin, a toxic protein frequently used in terrorist attacks and of great interest to the military. The vaccine has been tested in humans and is now out-licensed for final testing so it can be FDA- approved.

Originally from New York, Vitetta came to UTSW in 1974 because she wanted to avoid the hierarchy and patriarchy of more established research institutions on the east and west coasts. “I thought it would be a good idea to come to a young, new medical school where everybody was at the same,” she says. “We all could work our way up without any gender bias.”

Dr. Ellen Vitetta at her graduation from New York Medical College in 1968 (Courtesy: Vitetta).

While she enjoyed her work and research, she saw what she describes as administrative bloat as the university grew, with added requirements and a sense that the faculty work for the administration, not the other way around. “I no longer feel warm and fuzzy towards the whole academic structure,” she says. “It’s frustrating to someone like me because my strength is my creativity, brain, and ability to get things done. If it’s completely off the rails because I’m preoccupied with 10 other things, I can’t do my work.”

Money, Vitetta says, became preeminent in her nearly five decades at UTSW. It was also at the root of her conflict with UTSW. Vitetta watched as she and numerous colleagues were pushed out of their positions as they reached a certain age, even if they still had much to contribute.

So who was allowed to keep working late into life? “Anybody who could get connected to a very large amount of money by starting a company or pulling in some huge grants,” she says. “If you serve the administration’s interests, they leave you alone. If you don’t, you’re pushed out.”

Because she was a tenured professor, Vitetta couldn’t easily be fired, so she says she was given “death by a thousand cuts” by the administration. She was happy to continue working as she approached seventy. She says she was productive, teaching, mentoring, serving on committees, and was about to be president of the faculty senate when the trouble began.

In 2012, her dean came into her office and told her they were going to take away her lab space, which was focused on vaccines, and give it to a younger male colleague. She pushed back and says the dean told her that no one cared about vaccines (this was pre-COVID-19 by a couple of years) and that if she received NIH funding for her work with a ricin vaccine, she should give it back. Vitetta says he disparaged her work, and she asked him to leave her office and come back when he was ready to apologize.

No apology came, but over the next several months, her lab space kept being cut, and her team asked to relocate. When she didn’t secure National Institutes of Health funding, she was forced to cut 35 of 40 members of her staff in 2014. Vitetta says she had secured other funding sources but had to sit for her first-ever post-tenure review in 2015 after receiving tenure in 1976. In a post-review letter, her supervisor wrote that UTSW “would like to develop a strategy that will facilitate the transition of Dr. Vitetta to Emeritus Professor at an appropriate time.” Still, she had no intention of moving to Emeritus status. 

Following the review, she says UTSW cut her yearly salary by $50,000 because of a lack of outside funding and told her to vacate the last of her lab space, which impacted her ability to raise other funds. She had never discussed retirement with her Chair and had several non-federal sources of funding for her work. She was then told that her  non-NIH funding “did not count.”

Vitetta would go on to sue the university. According to court documents, UTSW administration said, “UTSWMC research faculty are responsible for financially supporting the equivalent of fifty percent of their own salary, the UTSWMC space they occupy, their equipment and supplies, and their staff,” but that Vitetta had not met that standard. The letter said the university had supplied $6 million worth of funding to support her salary and research, more than anyone else in basic sciences.

According to court documents, administrators said the changes to Vitetta’s salary and space were “a data-driven utilization review … using an established financial model’ and consideration of ‘institutional priorities and goals, underutilization of space, research productivity, and indirect and direct research dollars per square foot.’”

Vietta’s lawyer Walt Taylor says he planned to argue in court that UTSW never produced any documentations showing the models were widely used nor had they produced any communication to show the models were in the possession of the decision-makers connected to Vitetta’s situation. “There was no evidence that UTSW provided any such models or formulas to Ellen or any other faculty members, including Department Chairs or Center Directors,” Taylor wrote via email.

Vitetta says her department chair told her that the administration wanted her to retire and there was little she could do to prevent it, but she chose another path. In 2015, Vitetta filed reports for discrimination and retaliation at UTSW and then with the Texas Workforce Commission’s civil rights division in 2015. The organization issued her a right-to-sue letter in 2016, and soon after, Vitetta filed her lawsuit in a Dallas County court with Taylor taking the case on a contingency basis.

But because Texas is a sovereign immunity state, it is nearly impossible to sue your employer if the employer is a state entity (the director of the GENECIS clinic at Children’s Health that treats transgender children is going through a similar process). Before Vitetta could make her case, a court had to rule that she could sue UTSW for discrimination and retaliation. In 2016, she was able bring the suit, but UTSW appealed and COVID-19 further delayed any progress. In June 2020, the the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision, and after five years of litigation, Vitetta was able to get a trial date and her legal team could begin taking depositions.

In July 2022, Vitetta finally got a court trial date that couldn’t be moved, called a special setting, set for October 2022. But the trial would never happen. Just weeks after the special setting was finalized, Vitetta and UTSW reached a settlement.

Though they can’t be sure, Vitetta and her lawyer say an affidavit submitted by UTSW professor emeritus Jerry Niederkorn was a significant factor in settling. Niederkorn described Vitetta as “one of the most accomplished immunologists and microbiologists in the world” and detailed how younger male researchers at UTSW who experienced similar funding gaps did not have their lab space reduced. UTSW offered these younger male researchers bridge funding for their entire salaries and kept their lab running despite two to three years of funding gaps around the same time period, Niederkorn’s affidavit said.

Vitetta says that UTSW leaders told her at different points that the outside funding she had secured from sources other than the National Institute of Health would be rejected and not allow her to keep running her research lab. Still, Niederkorn said that he had never heard of such a rule limiting funding to the NIH. “I am greatly concerned that Dr. Vitetta’s contributions and value to the University are not being recognized, and her continued success as a research scientist is being hampered,” he wrote.

“I think the judge got it right,” says Mary Nix, a partner at Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann who has represented clients on both sides of employment discrimination cases in addition to more than two decades of complex business litigation. “The biggest turning point of the case is that Niederkorn was willing to step out and speak the truth of what he was seeing as to the difference in how she was being treated, because she had to have a comparator.”

“He was speaking up on behalf of this older woman and most other male executives were taking the opposite side,” Nix says. “It is so brave and courageous and the right thing to do.”

Taylor fought her legal battles for years. He says the discussions about how funding was the reason for space reduction and salary cuts never made sense to him and, in the end, may have been the reason a settlement was reached. “A rule is only a rule when it is clear and applies equally to all employees. Otherwise, it becomes a weapon for discrimination and retaliation,” he says.

A Pattern of Behavior

This behavior toward women leaders at UTSW is not an isolated incident. Other women in the university report being needled into retirement as they got older. In 2018, Dr. Nancy Rollins was appointed to be the associate dean of clinical research after being on faculty at UTSW since 1986 and rising to the position of chief of pediatric radiology. She wanted a new challenge and thought the dean position might provide it, and she was proud of her work helping bring COVID-19 trials online at the university during the pandemic. But her time in leadership was tainted by what she felt was discriminatory behavior.

She says she was “tied up in knots” when she was set to make a presentation to UTSW President Dr. Daniel Podolsky, but her boss Dr. David Russell told her that he would do the presentation. She says she had done the work to prepare the presentation and felt it was not his area of expertise, and she sent him an email expressing her frustration. “To do all that work with the research task force and not have an opportunity to present is very discouraging. Is this a popularity contest?” she wrote in late 2019.

In response, Russell wrote via email, “Please substitute Nancy Rollins for Chuck Norris in the below.” Under that message were dozens of Chuck Norris jokes in the body of the email detailing how strong and tough “Walker, Texas Ranger” star Chuck Norris is. Rollins was bewildered by the message, but several jokes struck her as unprofessional, with sexual and profane references. “Chuck Norris is not hung like a horse – horses are hung like Chuck Norris,” one of them read. Another said, “A rogue squirrel once challenged Chuck Norris to a nut hunt around the park. Before beginning, Chuck simply dropped his pants, instantly killing the squirrel and 3 small children. Chuck knows you can’t find bigger, better nuts than that.”

She reported the incident to the provost and dean of the medical school and the Office of Equity and Access. Rollins says her relationship with Russell was never the same and that he rarely acknowledged her, even while they were in the same room. When she reached out to him about working together again, he asked that she talk to the provost and legal department to remove the disciplinary letter in his employment file, according to an email obtained by D CEO Healthcare. Rollins says that Russell also presented her with a document to sign in August 2018 that she would not discuss gender bias at UTSW.

Later, the university created a new position that would be her superior, a senior associate dean of clinical research. “Gradually, I was no longer on standing committees, I no longer was given any tasks, and any initiatives that I was trying to make were derailed,” she says. So after 35 years at UTSW and the only job she ever had, she put in her notice to quit in 2021.

“When he came in, there was no room for me at the table,” Rollins says. “I could see the writing on the wall.”

Nancy Street was a longtime associate dean at UTSW that had similar experiences. She found her calling in diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and mentored students at the medical school. She helped guide many diverse student organizations and enjoyed her work immensely. At age 63, she had plans to retire in four years. She was excited when the university hired a new assistant dean for diversity in early 2021 named Dr. Arnaldo Vasquez, who was from Penn State. She thought they could overlap for a few years, and then she would retire.

Street says she helped onboard him, even though he worked remotely for the first several months he worked at UTSW. After sensing some unhappiness from Vasquez, they met with Dr. Andrew Zinn, the dean of the UTSW graduate school of biomedical sciences. Street says she was blindsided when Vasquez told her boss that Street was keeping students from meeting with him. For a while, they agreed to divide and conquer the duties of the dean, but in December 2021, Street says that Zinn told her that her position would no longer include diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and that she would now be in charge of summer programs and alumni efforts.

Street protested but says Zinn told her she had to cancel all meetings with students unless Vasquez gave her permission. Later, she would be asked to provide weekly reports on what she was doing with her time, and her supervisor threatened her with a salary reduction after her next performance review. At that point, Street decided to put in her three weeks’ notice and left in March 2022. She had been at UTSW for 26 years.

“In my heart, I know what happened was wrong,” Street says. “It literally came out of nowhere from my perspective.”

In a detailed email asking for comment about the settlement and the incidents involving Rollins and Street, UTSW responded with a statement: “UT Southwestern does not comment on legal or faculty personnel matters.”

Settling for the Future

In the office of the provost at UTSW, all eight deans are male, and all but one are White. The Texas Legislative Budget Board lists the top-paid professionals at UTSW, and for the fiscal year 2021, of the top 25 paid employees at UTSW, only five are women (one of them is Rollins). Vitetta, Rollins, and Street all described the UTSW administration as a “good ol’ boys club” and felt discriminated against because of their age and gender.

Regarding tenure, Vitetta is frustrated with the lack of transparency around retirement discussions. She said she had never heard of the administration’s formulas connecting funding to lab space or salary. “There are no rules or regulations about when and how long you can stay once you have tenure, and if they want you out, they simply gaslight you until you give up,” she says. “There’s no discussion about retirement, so you get blindsided.”

In lawyer Mary Nix’s view, she sees the issues arrive at the end of one’s career. “The way the court documents read, this was clearly done to try and make her do what she didn’t want to do,” she says. “She didn’t want to retire; she wanted to complete her mission. But they wanted her to move on and didn’t value her mission the way she did.”

There is hope for institutions to change, says Olivera Finn, a professor and former chair of the department of immunology at the University of Pittsburgh and longtime friend of Vitetta. Finn has been at institutions where gender bias was pervasive and oppressive but says Pittsburgh has been very open to women in leadership roles, though not perfect. “If leaders are not careful, the problem will continue,” she says. “You have to be intentional about making a difference.”

Despite the lawsuit between Vitetta and UTSW, she says she wants to donate some of her settlement back to the university to fund efforts to develop a process for more defined off-boarding guidelines and procedures for senior and end-of-career tenured professors. Vitetta says she has become a master of compartmentalization who can love the university with which she was locked in a legal battle for years. She realizes that not everyone is cut out for going to work every day and enduring the consequences of suing her employer.

While this individual case may be settled, the larger issue of an aging workforce isn’t going away, Nix says. “With an aging population, many still want to work and don’t want to retire,” she says. “This is going to continue to be a more substantial issue than it was.”

Vitetta has been able to focus on her work despite dealing with lawyers and the courts for years and still has positive feelings toward UTSW for the work it has done over the years. She is still employed at UTSW, and is working with outside companies to develop a platform that helps create new vaccines and treatments for skin viruses. She still has a great deal of respect for many aspects of UTSW with regard to its research, clinical care, and faculty.

As for the future, she has no plans to slow down and is trying to navigate how to donate to the school to help with end-of-career guidance while making investments toward future endeavors. “I’m torn about if I should use some of the settlement to get these companies moving fast,” she says. “It’s funny being torn because in one case, I’m supporting someone who tortured me for 10 years, and in the other case, it could be progress for humanity. So I’m not sure yet.”


Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the senior writer for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…

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