ASU Inc.

On a quiet morning in early January, Kathryn Milun sits at a table in the back corner of a Tempe coffee shop, hunched over a huge stack of papers. Not long ago, that stack might have held papers to grade. Milun used to be a popular professor at ASU. But today, all the tiny brunette has to consider is legal paperwork, and it's all about her fight with her former employer.

Milun devotes her time to two things: her career as an academic and her family. As the mother of a 12-year-old and 10-year-old twins, she's worked to perfect the art of juggling a family and career with her husband, who is also a professor. In her six years at ASU, she split her time between justice studies and the English department. She's taught classes from anthropology to political theory to film and comparative literature.

These days, she works with the National Association of University Women, giving lectures around the country on the problems mothers in academia face.

She has firsthand knowledge.

When she came to ASU, Milun thought it was a good choice for her career and family. ASU was offering her a chance to create classes in the English department. The hiring committee (and, she assumed, the university) seemed to understand that, as a mother and career academic, she needed an extended tenure clock.

She was wrong.

Typically, it takes a professor six years to complete tenure requirements, and it's not something to slack on. Tenure is the magic word in academia — it protects professors from being fired for teaching an unpopular viewpoint and it allows academic freedom.

It's the ultimate in job security.

In 2003, as she was getting ready to submit her tenure file, Milun was fired. Her dean, who since has been promoted to a vice president position at ASU, said it took her too long to complete the tenure requirements.

Milun was furious. She'd been told she could have extra time. And she'd exceeded her department's requirements for tenure. She fought, and was told she could have a second chance — but only if she completed five peer-reviewed articles and two books within a year. That's an insane workload, all but unheard of, although she did come close.

Her file made it up through the ranks — past her department chair, dean, a university-level tenure committee and ASU's provost.

In the past, the provost would have been the last stop. That's how universities around the country traditionally have run their tenure programs, and it's how ASU ran its program — until 2002, when Lattie Coor turned over the presidency to Michael Crow. Coor left ASU in his late sixties after serving the school for 12 years.

Crow was just 46 when he climbed down from the ivory tower at Columbia University to take the Arizona State job. Almost immediately, the guy had a reputation. Love him or hate him, if you have anything to do with ASU (and maybe even if you don't), you have an opinion about Michael Crow.

The tales of Crow's devotion to the job are legion: He does Google searches at the dinner table. He sleeps four hours a night. He personally responds to e-mails from students.

And he reviews all tenure files himself, including Kathryn Milun's. He denied her tenure because she hadn't completed five peer-reviewed articles and two books within a year. Period.

Milun responded with a formal complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming she was punished for being a woman with children and for daring to claim discrimination.

The EEOC agreed, granting her a final determination against the university. In December, the agency wrote that ASU denied Milun tenure and fired her "because of her sex, female, and in retaliation for complaining about employment discrimination."

Milun is now considering a lawsuit against ASU. There's even talk of a class-action suit. Milun, it turns out, is not the only professor frustrated by the university's new direction.

"A public trust [like a university] is transparent, and that's disappearing," she says. "As a public trust, it's really deviated from that initial investment. Some of us tried to make changes, but we had administrators who were put in for reasons that were not intellectual, and rather without plan or vision."

Kathryn Milun's case is one example of what people at ASU call "Mike-Crow" management — the president of a 60,000-student, 2,800-faculty-member university making tenure decisions. (And this time, perhaps, not so wisely. An EEOC ruling is nothing to sniff at.)

Crow's critics, and even some of his fans, say the guy is an obsessive micromanager — down to the names of university departments, where donations are coming from, and what gets printed in the student newspaper.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin