The legal blogosphere has been embroiled recently in a series of discussions about Karen Rothenberg, formerly dean at Maryland law. For those living in a cave (or avoiding Above the Law as a paper-finishing strategy), the basic facts are these: Karen Rothenberg was UM’s first woman dean, and highly successful in her service as dean from 2000 to 2008. Several years into her deanship, the university president negotiated a compensation deal with her. She was eligible for a sabbatical, but it would have been counterproductive for her to take time off at the time, and so she was paid a lump sum for the sabbatical in 2007 but didn’t actually take the time off. The extra pay for her untaken sabbatical approximately doubled her salary that year. The news came out in a recent audit, and the story made it into the Baltimore Sun (here).
The story itself is a relatively minor event. Faculty members routinely negotiate the best compensation packages they can. A dean who has significantly raised the school’s profile is worth a good deal to a law school. As Dan Filler notes at the Faculty Lounge, this looks like a normal sort of compensation decision: “the basic goal was probably the retention of a successful dean who’d been in office for 8 years. Ordinary science.” (Though as Filler notes, the payment form chosen was rather risky.)
But the recent reaction has been troubling in many ways. The initial Baltimore Sun articles have been followed by a feeding frenzy of snarky commentary at Above the Law and other sites. Above the Law’s story was titled, “Is the Dean worth $800k?” Comments were the usual mix of insult and personal attack.
Now, I understand that 2010 is a bad time to have large bonuses disclosed. We’ve seen waves of populist outrage over recent bank bonuses. This payment is a few years old, but was first disclosed in 2010. Part of the reaction probably comes from that angle.
But I can’t help but see troubling gendered undertones in the reaction here.
The online comments have been very nasty and personal, an overreaction which may reflect resentment over the audacity of a woman dean to ask for (and get) a bonus just like men. Let’s remember, women are still significantly underrepresented in law school deanships. Women law deans have hovered at 20% for years. As the Faculty Lounge recently noted, until last year Yale Law had never had even a female acting dean. Dean Rothenberg was the first woman to be dean at Maryland. How much of the vitriolic reaction is based on hostility towards a female invader of a traditionally male domain? Would these folks be showing the same outrage if her name was George? (And why is everyone focusing on the woman who was paid, and not the man who decided to pay her?)
In addition, the hostility also raises troubling questions about online conversations and gendered shaming norms. As explained cogently by my Concurring Opinions co-blogger Danielle Citron (disclosure: she teaches at Maryland), the ease of anonymous commentary allows for an attack-and-shaming dynamic that is frequently directed at women. As a result, the internet has all too often become a place where anonymous commenters can try to shame women into silence.
I’m all for thoughtful discussion of the topic, including legitimate discussion of Dean Rothenberg’s actions. But let’s remember that she’s been a highly successful woman dean (and that there are a lot of highly paid men in law). Let’s ask how much the outrage is driven by unstated gender norms. And let’s remember that internet attacks on Dean Rothenberg draw on a problematic history of silencing powerful women through anonymous internet sliming.
Kaimipono Wenger is an Assistant Professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law