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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Court rules against Sabinson

Ruling on a discrimination lawsuit brought against Dartmouth by Professor Mara Sabinson last year, the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire found in favor of the College on three of the four claims of the suit, according to court documents.

In an order released Wednesday, the District Court granted the College's motion for summary judgment on accusations of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

"We are pleased that the court found that Dartmouth did not discriminate against Professor Sabinson," Robert Donin, Dartmouth College's general counsel, said.

Sabinson, a tenured associate professor of theater, charged that the college attempted to end, then severely restrict, her employment based on her sex, age and religion, citing purported anti-Semitic comments by College administrators and professors.

When called about the decision, K. William Clauson, Professor Sabinson's attorney, declined to comment except to say that they plan to file an appeal. Sabinson could not be reached for comment.

According to background material submitted for the case by counsel on both sides, the conflict stretches back to 2000, when multiple complaints from Sabinson's colleagues in the theater department prompted an inquiry into her practices.

In a letter summarizing his findings, Edward Berger, then dean of the Faculty, stated that "The Drama Department is severely demoralized and there is a high level of acrimony, most of which is directed at [Sabinson]," and further described the difficulties facing what he perceived to be "a very damaged department."

An intensive review of the theater department, conducted by a panel composed of one Dartmouth faculty member and two experts from outside the College, was completed in 2005. It found that "reform of the acting curriculum is impossible so long as Professor Sabinson partakes of the discussion," and recommended that she be encouraged to take a retirement package or else be "marginalized to certain courses."

Sabinson was apprised of the findings during a meeting in 2005 with provost Barry Scherr, Dean of the Faculty Carol Folt and Lenore Grenoble, who took over as chair of the theater department after Sabinson stepped down in 2002. She was then informed that she did not fit in with the "culture" of the department and that if she stayed on, she faced assignment to first-year seminar theater classes.

That August, Sabinson filed a discrimination charge with the New Hampshire Commission on Human Rights, followed by the lawsuit against the College.

In the suit, she pointed to the administration's statements about changing the culture of the department, as well as a comment by theater professor Margaret Spicer "that it might be time for Professor Sabinson 'to find [her] rabbi and start... a happy new life,'" as signs of anti-Semitism directed against her within the department.

The court ultimately determined that Sabinson was unable to adequately demonstrate that religious discrimination had occurred and had provided no suitable evidence to support the claims of age or sexual discrimination. The court found that the statement regarding the department's culture can have multiple interpretations, that "many of those plausible interpretations are benign," and that Professor Spicer's "rabbi comment does not communicate any bias against Jewish people in general... or [Sabinson] in particular."

While Scherr and Grenoble declined to comment on the outcome of the case, referring inquiries to Robert Donin as general counsel, Donin himself expressed a firm belief in the accuracy of the court's decision.

"The court considered all of the facts that were submitted by both sides and decided that Professor Sabinson did not demonstrate discrimination," Donin said.

The District Court refused to exercise jurisdiction over Sabinson's fourth point, her argument concerning breach of contract. Since the college's employment and academic freedom policies that are at issue, with no legal precedent under New Hampshire law for Sabinson's claim, the court said the charge would be better resolved in a New Hampshire court.

Donin said that, while "Professor Sabinson would have the option of pursuing her breach of contract claim in state court," the College has not been informed that she has chosen to do so.

Donin also said he was unaware of any plans, on the part of either Dartmouth or Sabinson, to change her current teaching or employment arrangements with the College. The theater professor is scheduled to teach two courses next term.