The Mathematics of Discrimination : Since 1986, Jenny Harrison has been fighting for tenure in the male-dominated UC Berkeley math department. She says it’s a matter of sexual discrimination; the university says she’s just not good enough.

<i> Contributing editor Margy Rochlin is working on an NEA-funded radio documnetary, "Ambos Nogales: The Mingling Cultures on the Border."</i>

LAST SPRING, AN AUDIENCE COMposed mostly of earnest-looking young female students gathered in a small auditorium to hear a panel discussion entitled “Women Scientists at Work: Opportunities, Obstacles and Challenges.” Among the speakers were a bookish-looking research physicist, a computer-engineering researcher and a pregnant professor of civil engineering whose faded blue maternity smock couldn’t conceal her third trimester fullness.

Most of the speeches took the form of arm-patting confidence-boosters, 10-minute sharing sessions structured to impress upon the audience that, although no one was saying it was going to be a breeze, women could make their way in the male-dominated sciences. The lone dissenting opinion was provided by mathematician Virginia C. (Jenny) Harrison. Pale-skinned, wearing a long black skirt and a baggy purple sweater, Harrison read off a catalogue of the indignities she’d suffered while teaching in the math department at UC Berkeley. After each point on her humiliation checklist, Harrison paused as if to provide her listeners time to gasp.

It wasn’t that she put a complete damper on things, it was just that those who had to speak after her seemed self-conscious about their sunnier experiences. To be fair, Harrison was the only participant far enough along in her career to have bumped her head against the glass ceiling. In fact, as the civil-engineering professor finished her talk, she occasionally craned her neck toward Harrison, flashing her quick smiles, as if to apologize for her upbeat outlook.


The truth was that anyone in the crowd who read the Bay Area newspapers could have hardly been surprised by Harrison’s wet-blanket contribution. She had to be the most well-known tenure rejectee at Berkeley. To win this pleasureless title, Harrison worked for eight years as an assistant professor. Then, in 1986, she received the first thumbs-down tenure decision that the university’s math department had made in nearly 15 years. Harrison vainly spent the next three years exhausting every fix-it process the university offered. Finally, in 1989, Harrison filed a lawsuit charging that the university’s decision to deny her tenure, and what she claimed was the bungling of the subsequent appeals process, proved that her civil rights had been violated, that she had been discriminated against because of her gender.

The legal slamdance was still dragging on last spring, leaving Harrison with a drained bank account, a wall calendar scribbled with court dates and a career as a full-time litigant and part-time, unpaid, work-at-home mathematician. The suit would continue for another year before a mediator hammered out a settlement that gave her at least one thing she wanted: another run in front of yet another tenure review board.

On the face of things, it is easy to take up Harrison’s cause. For starters, over the years, the Berkeley mathematics department has barely managed to keep itself out of the so-called Zero Club--a group of universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Yale, that have no tenured women math professors. Out of a full-time staff of 52, Berkeley’s math department has just one tenured female, a Russian emigre named Marina Ratner, whose skills dwarf many of her male counterparts. Another Russian woman, Vera Serganova, was recently hired as an assistant professor, which puts her on tenure track. The professors also like to point to Alice Chang and Julia Robinson. Was it their fault that Professor Chang, who worked at Berkeley and UCLA, chose to settle in Southern California? (The rumble was that it was.) And they lamented the loss of Julia Robinson to leukemia in 1985. (What they didn’t say was that she had gotten tenure only after a quarter-century of work at Berkeley, and only after becoming the first woman mathemetician inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.)

Harrison also gets points for her undiluted relentlessness, though it also sheds light on her tendency toward molar-grinding tunnel vision. Over years of battling, she received scant indication that her struggle would end rosily. In fact, of the five tenure dispute cases that have been waged at Berkeley since 1986, hers is the only one that has gone to court. It has resembled, over time, a brutal and predictable call-and-response, with Harrison requesting reinstatement and Berkeley bluntly replying, “No.” Yet Harrison has never faltered from her game plan: To keep insisting that she is qualified until the University of California listens.

But judging Harrison’s case is hardly simple. Even by her own assessment, she isn’t a star. Her work hasn’t shaken the fundaments of math. Instead, her more or less midway position on the bell curve makes Harrison about the same as many other good mathematicians. What it doesn’t do is assure her a lifetime job at Berkeley, which has one of the top math departments in the country.

In fact, no matter which side you’re on, sooner or later you’re going to have deal with the question of the case: Is Jenny Harrison good enough? “She doesn’t pretend to be the best in the world,” says Anne Weills, her attorney, “but Jenny is absolutely competitive with the men in the department.” “We believe,” says Christopher Patti, the university counsel in the civil rights suit, “this was simply not a case where discrimination played any role. . . . After eight years, basically, she had not accomplished anything.”

As part of the routine tenure review process, outside experts in Harrison’s fields--one is called “dynamical systems,” the other is the mathematics of fractals--were solicited for evaluations of her work. Such evaluations are particularly important in math, where someone knowledgeable in one area may know nothing about another. The anti-Harrison forces note that many of the appraisals were iffy, even though Harrison had recommended half of the experts herself.

The pro-Harrison forces claim foul play, noting that as the tenure process went forward, additional evaluations were requested. Ultimately, says one tenured math professor at Berkeley, big-net randomness was used and “they sought appraisals from a person who was her known enemy.”

Additionally, Harrison’s side believes that the letter requesting evaluations was, at the least, oddly written. Two psycho-linguists on Harrison’s legal team came to the conclusion that the text was constructed to inspire a negative response.

Marc Rieffel, the math professor who drafted the dispatch, calls the linguists’ analysis “extremely sloppy,” and blows up at the suggestion of a hidden agenda. “I think it’s crazy,” he sputters. “They’re snatching at straws.”

And that’s how things are going in Jenny Harrison’s case, each side genuinely floored by the assertions of the other. It’s as if someone has called for a communication blackout. Even the manner in which Harrison might be described as a professional rarely contains any intersection of agreement. Her (mostly female) supporters portray her as a capable scholar, a courageous role model for future female mathematicians, who had been left unprotected by a imperfect, sexist tenure system. Her (mostly male) opponents tend to sketch her as a nice-try experiment, a once-promising young mathematician who failed to ripen to her full potential. They throw their hands in the air, complaining that Harrison’s huffy reaction is incredibly inappropriate. To them, she is a spoilsport unable to take no for an answer.

When discussing her battle, Harrison speaks as one who finds comfort in thinking of herself as the responsible heroine. To give up, she says, “would have been the easiest thing in the world to do. But I figured that if I just gave up and went away, then these guys would continue to damage women. And I would feel terrible, so guilty, because I was actually in a position where I could have done something.”

So during that panel discussion last spring, Harrison introduced an unexpectedly dramatic charge to the proceedings. Standing only footsteps from the dreary concrete building she once had taught in, she told her tales. Like the time a senior math professor said women belong at home and in the kitchen. Or when a prominent member invoked a classic: “We all know women’s brains are biologically inferior.”

It wasn’t until the middle of a question-and-answer session that her audience met one of the men she had pitted herself against. A bearded gentleman, wearing a rumpled pin-striped shirt, raised his hand and identified himself as Robion Kirby, the man whom Harrison accused of making the kitchen remark. “You never hear the other side of the story,” he insisted. “I never said that.”

“I’ll leave my response to the trial,” Harrison answered with a brittle grin. Then she laced her hands together so no one could see that they were trembling.

An hour later, sitting in his nearby office, Kirby clasped his hands behind his neck, and recalled the home-and-kitchen conversation. It took place 15 years ago, he said, when he, Harrison and several other professors were driving home from a conference. He had been outlining the blunders of what he called “the ardent feminists” who backed the equal rights amendment when he told Harrison that “a woman who did not have a career, who stayed home and raised her kids, should not be put down.” Somehow, he suggested, his harmless opinion had been reshaped in Jenny Harrison’s mind into something reactionary and disdainful, although he didn’t allow that the years might have reshaped his recollections, too.

When he spoke, it was with unassuming persuasiveness, his words so unadorned with self-doubt that they had a compellingly reliable ring. Kirby will freely admit that he did many of the things Harrison has said he did. For example, it’s true that he lobbied against her initial hiring: He didn’t think she was good enough. And if the subject of affirmative action is brought up, Kirby will easily respond with the rationale of many who oppose such a policy: Steps should be taken to “even the playing field,” he said, but he did not think that “standards should be lowered.” He believes that in mathematics “there isn’t any discrimination against women worth making a fuss about. In fact,” he said, “I believe that their gender actually helps a little bit.

“My impression,” Kirby said, “is that for women this is a hospitable field. You know, you hear stories about women being patted on the bottom or having comments made to them or men having nude calendars laying around. We don’t have any of that here. And if we did, you’d better believe that Jenny Harrison would talk about it. Just look,” Kirby said, making a sweeping gesture toward his office walls, which are papered with glossy four-color nature calendars. When he said this, he was smiling dreamily, in the manner of one who doesn’t understand that more often than not sexism isn’t something you can see.

FOR ALL OF THOSE WHO REGARD TENURE AS HIGHER EDUCAtion’s ultimate prize, there are at least as many who view it as outmoded. In fact, tenure can be a lot like an eight-year-long theatrical audition with no script and no stage direction. For the promise of lifetime job security, the task of tenure-track assistant professors generally is to wing it, to pick up clues from their colleagues about what would make them valuable assets to their department. Is it their teaching skills? The excellence of their research? The number of times they publish? And what about mystical factors such as friendship, antipathy, skill at playing academic power games?

When it comes to the Berkeley math department, most professors will agree that a tenure candidate’s desirability revolves largely on the originality, creativity and importance of his or her published research. The process pushes each candidate’s file, which contains a detailed resume, internal evaluations and the opinions of outside experts, through a seven-tier review.

It is those closest to the candidate, the tenured professors in each department, who make the first yea or nay recommendation. Two more faculty committees, the applicable dean, the provost, the vice chancellor and the chancellor all separately re-evaluate the file, but more times than not a departmental nay will carry the day. The idea is that after years of tryout, and all these layers of review, the cream will surely rise to the top.

Increasingly, however, women and minorities disagree with that assumption. They feel undone by the process, charging that the appraisal skills of the mostly white males that judge them can be tainted by unconscious racism and sexism. Witness UCLA’s Don Nakanishi, an Asian-American professor in the Graduate School of Education, whose research focused on racial issues. When he was denied tenure, he appealed, and it was decided that one of his review committees was so uninformed on Asian-American issues that it had devalued the quality of his work.

Jenny Harrison’s extended trip on the UC tenure track began in 1978. She had come to Berkeley on a fellowship in 1977. As a recent Ph.D, she had been sending her published papers off to top-dog mathematicians, like Berkeley’s Steve Smale, winner of math’s prestigious Field’s Prize and one of the department’s most influential voices. When he examined her doctoral dissertation, “Unsmoothable diffeomorphisms,” Smale was sufficiently bowled over to nominate her for a Miller Fellowship at Berkeley, and two years of post-doctoral research.

Within a year, Harrison was under consideration for an assistant professorship. But with the first indications of her advancement within the faculty, perceptible signs of spoilage appeared. Robion Kirby came out against her in a speech before the hiring committee. To Kirby, it was an exercise of faculty prerogative. “I wouldn’t call what I was doing a campaign,” he says now, “but I argued my case. I thought she was not as strong as other people we had not hired.”

Harrison heard that Kirby was also airing his disapproval, over tea, at the math department’s local hangout. During that time, when Harrison made her entrance into the coffeehouse, “people would sort of hush up and change the subject,” she says. “And I started wondering, was I being paranoid or what?” She thought the best solution was to point out to Kirby the error of his ways: “I was taught by my mother that everyone is good. That if somebody does something wrong, all you have to do is say, ‘You’ve got this wrong,’ and they would change. I was very, very naive.”

She asked Kirby to explain the problem. Kirby happily complied. “He called my work . . . basic , as if that were an insult,” says Harrison, setting her jaw firmly. “Very important people do that kind of research. Why was it a criticism when I did? And the things he was saying were so outrageous that I knew he was holding me to a higher standard.”

As office sniping goes, Kirby’s was fairly run-of-the-mill. But looking back, Harrison has to lump it in with a host of other hazily put insults and small acts of condescension. When she spoke at informal faculty gatherings, for example, some of her male colleagues seemed to be afflicted with a severe hearing loss. “If I had something to say, no one would respond,” she says. “My male friends would repeat what I said word for word and then it would become interesting. I’d wonder, ‘Did I say it too quickly or too softly or too arrogantly? Now I’m confident that there wasn’t anything wrong with the way I was saying it. They just didn’t have the focus for me because I was a woman.”

Once she got the assistant professorship, things got easier. Not that there weren’t other uncomfortable moments. Why did department head John Addison, who often posted the positive notices of other professors on the faculty bulletin board, neglect to pin up a laudatory review of her work that appeared in the British science journal Nature? For his part, Addison says the “news article” was nothing especially noteworthy. “Lots of things didn’t get put up,” he says, calling her version of the incident “bizarre and confused.”

And when Harrison was offered a tenured position at Oxford’s Sommerville College starting in the fall of 1979, she half expected a counteroffer from Berkeley. She said other colleagues had been locked in under similar circumstances, although some said such gestures are rarely bestowed on junior professors. But neither the department nor the dean heard about Oxford’s invitation because, Harrison said, the department head at the time, Shoshichi Koybayashi, unimpressed with the offer, never informed them. She said he told her, “The offer doesn’t count because Sommerville is a woman’s college.” When Harrison took a leave to try out the Sommerville post, she claims Koybayashi memoed the administration that she was merely following her husband to England. In fact, it was her then-husband, Bryan Sadler, who did the following, albeit with resistance; their marriage split up shortly after the move. Koybayashi declines to comment.

Since coming to Berkeley in 1977, Harrison had been working on aspects of the Seifert Conjecture, called “one of the main problems in dynamics and differential topology” in Science magazine. When she returned to Berkeley in 1982, she had in hand a solution for part of it. Counting the work in her dissertation, she considered it her second “major result,” a term mathematicians bestow upon important discoveries, and she set about writing it up and submitting it for publication. The Seifert result would become one of the contentious points in her tenure battle. Although her final paper on the result was accepted for publication just as her tenure review began, the university points out that the paper didn’t actually get into print until 1988. Besides, they say, in terms of major results, she had only variations of the Seifert work to show for all her years of tenure tryout.

In the fall of 1983, Harrison came up for her preliminary tenure review, a progress report given four years into the formal process. Her expectations were high. She considered herself a good professor: She scored high in student ratings, and she was the department’s sole female student adviser. And she was confident about her research as well. “I had a fantasy,” she says, “that the committee would do a proper review and recommend me for tenure early.” Instead, according to Harrison, the verdict was “neutral.” From what she could gather, the department was suggesting that she wasn’t quite ready yet, that getting tenure was only a matter of time.

It wasn’t until March, 1986, on the day of the final department vote on her tenure candidacy, that her fantasy ended. Harrison remembers standing near the elevators of Evans Hall with one of the graduate students she advised, when she encountered another math professor. “He spoke very freely with (the graduate student) but ignored me completely and his body language was very negative. Being from Alabama, nonverbal clues are very important to me.” Suddenly, she says, she knew that her perception of the way things were going was way off base.

A few hours later, when department chairman Addison and vice chairman Marc Rieffel went to Harrison’s eighth-floor office to tell her of the vote, they knocked on the door but no one answered. They soon discovered that she had already gone home. Rieffel can still summon up the exasperation of that moment, of wondering why she wasn’t where she said she would be, of how he and Addison were “a little bit thrown off by this change of how it was going to be handled.”

They called her at home, and Rieffel assured her that it was the lack of published articles, not flaws in her work, that had turned the tide against her. After hanging up, Harrison went into her bedroom and began to cry. When her current husband, Charles Pugh, himself a tenured Berkeley math professor, came home, he tried to console her. Somewhere in the couple’s mind must have been the unpleasant thought that their marriage--and his consequent abstention in the review--had meant one less vote for her and the loss of a champion who might have swung a reportedly close decision in her favor.

KNOCK, KNOCK. “MALE MATHEMATICIANS ARE OFTEN QUITE nerdy,” says Morris Hirsch, “having spent all their time in front of a computer or playing chess.” Knock, knock, knock. “They’re quite aggressive and rude and like to interrupt.” Knock, knock. “It can be very hard for women to compete, to learn about math in an environment like that.” Knock, knock, knock.

Sitting in his high-rise Evans Hall office, Hirsch is ruminating, sincerely trying to explain why women can find the math world so intimidating. But every five minutes or so, a particularly disheveled male student keeps showing up at his door, exuding moist anxiety.

As one of Jenny Harrison’s biggest fans on the Berkeley math faculty, Hirsch finds it easy to see how the daintiness of her Southern-girl background--she was raised in Tuscaloosa--might have worked against her at Berkeley. Harrison is soft-spoken, quick to cry and came to mathematics too late in her education--her last year as an undergrad--to accustom herself to the tribal ruckus of the shove-and-tussle crowd.

For all of the ways that she and most of her male counterparts clash, there is one thing they also share: personal histories marked by isolation, where confidence wasn’t the result of popularity but braininess. Harrison can report vividly on the educational highlights of her childhood. She figured out an algorithm for cube roots at age 9. She views herself as “largely self-taught,” making up for her impoverished public school education by “doing a lot of reading, writing plays and poetry, and spending my allowance on classical records.” It’s easy to picture her, even at 44, as a painfully withdrawn teen-ager, devouring thick books while working behind the counter of her father’s car rental business.

Her memories of home life are recounted without enthusiasm. She says her mother and brother were “very supportive and loving,” but neither of her parents had much use for friends or cultural furnishings like books or records. To this day, she attributes her naivete and her clumsiness at confronting people to her parents’ relative wordlessness. “We didn’t have conversations very much,” she says. “They didn’t prepare me very well for the outside world. I didn’t know how to deal with adversarial situations. I never even had anybody yell at me.” Against this backdrop of silence and loneliness, Harrison learned to concentrate, to spend endless solo hours, as all good mathematicians do, just thinking.

Life didn’t really begin until she won a Marshall Scholarship after graduating from the University of Alabama. At 21, she found herself on the luxurious S.S. France bound for England and three years of tuition-free graduate work at the University of Warwick. She and 23 others, handpicked for their brilliance, “had breakfast, lunch, dinner together,” she says breathlessly. “These people, these people, these people! We danced together, we talked until the wee hours of the night. They were all so remarkable and so smart.”

Today Harrison’s coiled-spring demeanor visibly relaxes when she reflects back upon that time. Now she has her husband, a 6-year-old son and an active social circle. But back then, her erudite shipmates opened up a whole new world for her; it was the first time she realized that she didn’t have to be by herself anymore. “They were like me and I could talk to them,” she says. “They laughed with me, they didn’t laugh at me.”

She ended up staying on in England, earning her Ph.D in 1975 at the University of Warwick, then heading stateside to do postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J. All along, Harrison was sending papers off, getting them published, adding weight to her resume. By the time she won the Miller Fellowship at Berkeley, her transformation was complete: her sturdiest attribute, her intelligence, had changed her life.

IT WOULD BE HARD FOR ANYONE TO SLOUGH OFF THE BRUISing sting of a tenure rejection. But when the math department’s “no” vote finally came, it was an inescapable fact that Jenny Harrison took it especially hard. As the days passed, the shock turned into a lingering bout of rage and depression. For years to come, Harrison would spend sleepless nights replaying the traumatic episode. “I can remember taking my son to the Oakland Zoo,” she says, “and looking at the elephant do something funny. My son and I would laugh. And my relief from the disappointment would last about two seconds. And then it would come right back in. I couldn’t cope with it.”

But if Harrison hadn’t seen the rejection coming, others had. “Between you and me, it didn’t come out of the blue,” says one well-respected female mathematician at another university. “For Jenny, things hadn’t looked good for years.” Robion Kirby says he never altered his view that she wasn’t quite up to par. And Steve Smale is not alone in saying that, contrary to Harrison’s conclusions, her mid-career appraisal was not neutral, but “definitely negative.”

But Anne Weills, Harrison’s lawyer, believes her client had been abandoned, that no one had had enough backbone to tell her the bleakness of the situation. “What happens usually,” says Weills, “is that rather than risk the humiliation and damage to your career and reputation, the mentor of the candidate takes that person aside and says, ‘Look: Your chances don’t look good.’ Then they seek appointments elsewhere.”

According to Harrison, her “official mentor” was Smale, at least early on. But Smale had distanced himself from her after a personal relationship between them crumbled. Someone wiser might have weighed the win-factor of getting close to one’s married sponsor and decided against following her heart. When it came time for her tenure hearing, Smale abstained from voting, saying that he “didn’t feel strongly one way or the other” about her qualifications. “I don’t think my opinion of her was based on personal things at all,” he says. And he didn’t “support her later on,” he says, “because she didn’t seem as exciting a mathematician as she seemed originally.”

“(Smale) has refused to read my work for 10 years,” Harrison responds crisply. “That’s something I wouldn’t mind being on the record.”

Harrison’s colleagues “were always sweet to her face,” Weills says. “If they would have had the guts to say, ‘You’re in trouble,’ she could have taken a stand and fought for herself. More than sexism, it’s a real abuse of someone’s psyche and self-esteem. They didn’t know how to communicate with her. They had an obligation to tell her the truth. And they didn’t do their jobs.”

After the department vote, Harrison still had two years left on her $33,000-a-year employment contract. Others might have left then and there, but Harrison, after taking a few days off, swallowed hard and went back to work. For the next six months, she couldn’t stand the thought of facing anyone, of hearing sympathetic or critical remarks, so she dropped out of departmental meetings and ducked into Evans Hall through a dimly lit rear stairwell.

Harrison can’t tell you the date or moment when she decided to fight back, but after the rejection, “I started talking to lots of women who had been visiting faculty members at Berkeley and asked what their experience had been. And the answer was uniformly negative. They had felt worse about themselves than when they had arrived.”

In 1989, she took her case to the Privilege and Tenure Committee, a five-professor grievance board with two women members. Harrison was represented by an attorney, and the committee listened to 80 hours of testimony from more than two dozen witnesses.

To Harrison, “the P&T; hearing was a kangaroo court, a complete waste of time” because, among other things, she had no subpoena power, no access to personnel documents and because testimony was not given under oath. “I was hearing things said sometimes that I knew weren’t true,” she says. “And I expected this to happen, I expected people to deny that they had said sexist things.” On occasion, she says, her colleagues told “blatant lies.”

In the end, the committee supported the university’s decision to deny Harrison tenure. Within one day, Harrison upped the ante, and filed suit.

When employees are sacked, it’s rare that they’re missed. Berkeley’s math department, like most big organizations, would likely have had little trouble adjusting to Harrison’s loss if only she had really gone away. Stop thinking about Harrison and her name was sure to surface, linked to another university officer she had contacted to enlist in her cause. Well after Harrison’s contract was up, she still arrived at Evans Hall, picking up letters, and much later, she occasionally took over her husband’s office on Thursday afternoons, just in case a student, especially a woman student, might want her advice.

And all the while, her lawsuit was proceeding. In 1991, her attorney won a motion that forced the university to hand over the confidential files of eight math professors who received tenure during Harrison’s term of employment. What the dossiers show, says Weills, is that Harrison is an average genius, meaning that she deserved promotion as much as half of her male colleagues did, but not as much as the other four. Both Harrison and Weills considered it a case-making coup.

Nothing seemed to deter Harrison, not even something truly life-threatening. Around November of 1991, she began to cough up blood, and a few months later was found to have throat cancer. Word of her illness chilled the handful of staunch Jenny-haters, and even they breathed a little easier after her treatment concluded and she was given an optimistic prognosis.

Around that time, the Jenny Harrison Support Group began to meet. Its members assumed responsibility for Harrison’s diet and put her on a regular exercise program. They raised nearly $30,000 for a legal fund through the distribution of a Jenny Harrison newsletter, which landed on many desks in universities around the country. More provocative was the fact that many of her champions were faculty wives--women whose membership in the group somehow implicated their own husbands in this contest of wills.

Not only that, Harrison was on the verge of her third major result, which extends certain aspects of calculus to fractals. “I’m impressed,” is how Morris Hirsch, one of her strongest supporters in the department, reacted to her findings. “It’s not going to change the world. But it should be very, very helpful in many fields.” And she’d achieved this while in exile in her Berkeley Hills home, in what she saw as her “own department.” In her top-floor study, where she kept her shiny Bechstein black piano and orchid plants, she communicated with other mathematicians by E-mail. Her research prompted invitations for speaking engagements throughout the country. “On one hand, people were lauding me,” Harrison says today, “and on the other hand, these guys were telling me I’m no good. It’s sort of ironic.”

Irony is not exactly what some of her ex-colleagues call it, at least those who quiver with fury at the sound of her name. How could she expect them to give her gold stars for her mathematical accomplishments after she had caused them to be deposed by lawyers, quizzed by reporters and, in some cases, made to explain themselves to the university? She had appeared before the Assembly Education Committee in San Francisco, testified before the House Education and Labor subcommittee on employment opportunities in a panel on sex discrimination; she’d even shown up as a talking head on CNN’s “Sonya Live.” She dropped hints about her colleagues’ misdeeds, but did not drop their names. Yet people in the math community knew who they were.

Her former colleagues know that Harrison’s goal is reinstatement at Berkeley, with tenure. But during the months of legal maneuvering, if you asked many of them to envision her return, the fact was, they . . . just . . . couldn’t . . . do . . . it. All they could do was press their lips into tight approximations of a smile and say things like, “It will be, um, very uncomfortable” and “I would be surprised if she won, but I guess if she did she would be treated with civility.” Given a few moments to unwind, they would wonder aloud about why she couldn’t have just taken the blow and moved on.

“I think she has an unrealistic idea of what people really think about her work,” says Marina Ratner, who admits to having read it only in part. “She thinks that some people have great opinions of her. Well, in fact, they don’t.”

John Addison hesitantly chimes in, too. The slope-shouldered mathematician says he has put in long hours toward the recruitment of minority and female graduate students and faculty members. But, somehow, in Jenny Harrison’s turbulent wake, he has been mostly identified as the professor who didn’t post her Nature review and whose bibliography of published articles is shorter than hers. At first, Addison wanted to be off the record when it came to comments about Harrison. Then he changed his mind. “I feel deeply hurt to be called sexist,” he says. Then he whips out a piece of clean white paper and a mechanical pencil and writes in neat, controlled script: “There isn’t a sexist bone in my body.”

EARLY NEXT MONTH, THE long-running Harrison tenure dispute case may be finally resolved. Then again, it may not.

In public, both Jenny Harrison and the university have spent countless hours over the last year loudly proclaiming their rock-strong court cases. “We believe,” repeats Christopher Patti, the university’s lawyer, “that the department made an honest and good-faith judgment. This was simply not a case where discrimination played a role.” Anne Weills is just as adamant: “There is a social fabric of discrimination, a sort of hostile environment toward women that we can show in many different ways.”

Despite all the hype, both Jenny Harrison and the university were willing to pause in their pursuit of absolute justice. Last summer, an expensive mediator was hired and the litigants entered a stretched-out series of settlement negotiations. Though no one will talk about the process, the motivation behind it or the results, it looks like both sides saw a jury trial as a potential sinkhole.

For Berkeley, publicly mustering the full weight of the UC system against an untenured woman mathematician could appear grossly insensitive, especially on a campus that has been loudly broadcasting that its idea of excellence includes diversity. For Jenny Harrison, the spectacle of charge and countercharge could have so irretrievably eroded departmental good will that even if she prevailed, the court might hesitate to push for her reinstatement. Few people would want to force a lifetime “marriage” made in hell.

So, on March 7, Jenny Harrison and the university reached a settlement, which, depending on whom you speak with, includes minimal, or substantial, financial compensation. What isn’t in doubt is that she won the right to send her work before a new peer review panel that includes experts in her fields of dynamical systems and fractals. The most talked-about clause in the settlement is said to allow her to win and lose simultaneously. If the panel appraises her work negatively, Harrison must cease lobbying for reappointment. But if the panel finds her work tenure-worthy, the university can still decline to accept her--and Harrison can resume her court battle again.

When the university first agreed to settlement talks, Harrison says, she had a “psychological change. This huge pressure was relieved and I was able to really get into my work.” Her research announcement for her third major result has been accepted for publication. “Now I’ve turned back into the positive person I normally am,” she says happily.

Not everyone shares her enthusiasm. “I think they didn’t know what a good case we had,” says Robion Kirby. He was “disappointed” by the school’s decision to settle. His employers probably backed down, Kirby said, because Jenny Harrison is “a pleasant person . . . makes a good impression,” and is now “a tragic figure because of her cancer. They hear her and how do they know what to believe?”

Asked to predict the outcome of the settlement-ordered evaluation, Harrison says, “I wouldn’t say that I’m confident, totally confident, about the outcome, but I feel I’ve done good work and have a good chance of being judged fairly.”

There are at least a few signs that Harrison actually has soaring hopes for an eventual return. Last summer, for example, she hit upon the notion of forming a woman’s resource center within the math department. Once she gets back to work, she says, she wants to cajole the university into formally giving the project an office in Evans Hall and perhaps a secretary. And, like it or not--Harrison says she’s been asked by some departmental members to stay away from Evans Hall--she has, through two graduate students, gone ahead and set up shop already, in a borrowed office, busily interviewing students to collect data on being female in the math department.

But perhaps the most significant indication of her high expectations are Jenny Harrison’s fallback plans. She doesn’t have any.