EDUCATION

Brain-drained

A top academic leaves for tenure at Harvard

MARK NICHOLS July 20 1992
EDUCATION

Brain-drained

A top academic leaves for tenure at Harvard

MARK NICHOLS July 20 1992

Brain-drained

EDUCATION

A top academic leaves for tenure at Harvard

Melissa Franklin’s colleagues in the esoteric world of particle physics say that her aggressiveness sometimes upsets other people. In 1989, when she was trying to secure government backing for a science project, Franklin met William Winegard, the federal minister of state for science and technology, at a reception at the University of Guelph, in Ontario. She told him forcefully that her work deserved to be amply funded. According to Franklin, Winegard responded by telling her that “you are a very obnoxious person.” Last week, the Edmonton-born Franklin said that she planned to accept an offer to become the first tenured female professor in the physics department of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Franklin, 35, says that she turned down an offer from the University of Toronto three years ago because of discriminatory treatment and the hostility she felt from some male faculty members. Declared Franklin: “I think that they didn’t want me there because I’m female and because I’m aggressive.” Franklin’s claims focused attention on the fact that physics departments at North American universities tend to be male-dominated enclaves in which women rarely earn promotions. Several Canadian physicists, including James Prentice, a U of T professor, said that they believe Franklin was treated badly by the university. Said Prentice: “The department

behaved towards Melissa just terribly in a host of ways. I think that there are men who are uncomfortable about the presence of women in our profession.” Added Catherine Kallin, an associate professor of physics at McMaster University in Hamilton: “Melissa is very outspoken. As a female in a male-dominated profession, there is a very low tolerance for this.” Franklin says that her difficulties with U of T began in 1986 when she applied for a job as assistant professor of physics. A graduate of that university and of Stanford University in California, where she earned a PhD, Franklin said that at one point she was told she was the leading candidate for the job. But she added: “For some technical reason, the search was reopened and they chose a man for the job.” Franklin subsequently joined the physics faculty at the University of Illinois at ChampaignUrbana as an assistant professor. In 1988, she applied again to U of T for a job as assistant professor, but she says that she was offered a more junior position as a research fellow. Prentice called the offer of a research fellowship for Franklin “a real insult.” Added Prentice: “She is a superb physicist.”

Joan Foley, U of T’s academic vice-president, told Maclean’s that she made special funds available to ensure that Franklin was offered a job. Foley said that Prentice and Robin Armstrong, U of T’s dean of arts and sciences at the time, both talked to her about

the importance of hiring Franklin. At the same time, added Foley, she was aware that “there were various views about her in the physics department.” Franklin was subsequently offered an assistant professorship in the department and, in 1989, the offer was upgraded to an associate professorship. Franklin says that after she had tentatively accepted the job, a male member of the physics department said to her: “OK, you’ve got the job. But you’re second-rate. I know it and you know it.” By then, Franklin was a junior fellow at Harvard engaged in a major experiment based in Illinois aimed at learning about elusive subatomic particles called quarks. She discovered that if she took the U of T job, she would be unable to get enough funding in Canada to continue her research at the Fermilab collider, a ja device that is used to examine subx atomic particles, near Chicago. “I reached the conclusion,” she said, “that it would be insane to come to Canada.”

Officials at U of T noted that the university had offered Franklin a job, which she turned down. “She was hired and chose not to stay,” said Prof. Derek York, who took over as physics department chairman in July. Added Prof. Michael Walker, the U of T physicist who was chairman of the department at the time that Franklin was offered a job: “There was no sexism on the selection committee, and in fact, Melissa Franklin stood at the top of the list.” Still, female physicists say that barriers throughout the North American educational system discourage women from entering the senior ranks of physics and some other sciences. There are currently no women in the U of T physics faculty, which has about 50 members. McMaster has two women in its 25member physics faculty. The University of British Columbia in Vancouver has one woman on its 56-member faculty. Now, physics departments at many Canadian universities are trying to alter the gender imbalance. Rashmi Desai, assistant chairman for graduate studies in the U of T department, said that beginning in September, teams of female graduate students and thirdand fourth-year students would act as “mentors” to help firstand second-year women adjust to life in the department.

Franklin said that she wanted to stay in Canada because “I really love the cultural mix and the cities. I really felt part of Canada.” Now, she says that she will have to decide whether to become a U.S. citizen. Meanwhile, Prof. Howard Georgi, chairman of Harvard’s physics department, described Franklin as “an unusually talented physicist.” Georgi praised Franklin’s habit of being outspoken. “She is not afraid to tell someone when she thinks they are wrong. She is a kind of conscience. She wants to make sure everything is done right,” added Georgi, singling out the very qualities that Franklin claims earned her a series of painful rebuffs from her alma mater.

MARK NICHOLS