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Former Professor Sues BC for Sex and Pregnancy Discrimination

A former Boston College professor is suing the University, alleging she faced gender discrimination in her tenure application process that occurred while she took maternity leave.

Hristina Nikolova filed the lawsuit against BC’s trustees on Oct. 26 in Suffolk County Superior Court, calling on the University to pay more than $1.7 million in damages.

“This case is about how Boston College sold Nikolova the American Dream and then stole it from her,” the lawsuit reads. “It is the story of how BC broke its promises to Nikolova, discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of the law, and ruined what should have been one of the most joyous experiences of her life – the births of her first three children.”

Nikolova is suing the University on counts of breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, retaliation, interference, sex and pregnancy discrimination, parental leave, and family and medical leave.

Jack Dunn, University spokesperson, said in a statement to The Heights that BC “intends to defend itself vigorously against this claim.”

“The decision to deny tenure reflected the judgment of the Promotions and Tenure Committee in the Carroll School of Management regarding the ‘impact, independence, and quality of the research’ Dr. Nikolova produced during her time at Boston College,” the statement reads.

Charles A. Lamberton, of Lamberton Law Firm LLC and lead counsel for Nikolova, said in an email to The Heights that his legal team plans to win the lawsuit.

“We are going to trial and we are going to win,” Lamberton wrote.

Nikolova joined the Carroll School of Management (CSOM) in 2014 as an assistant professor of marketing on a tenure track. According to the lawsuit, Nikolova became a top marketing scholar during her time at BC and was selected as CSOM’s inaugural Diane Harkins Coughlin and Christopher J. Coughlin Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor of Marketing.

“Year after year, BC lauded the high quality of Nikolova’s research, teaching, and service,” the lawsuit reads. “It said that she ‘represented the true spirit of faculty excellence at the Carroll School.’”

Nikolova had her first child and took maternity leave in June 2019, which granted a one-year extension on her tenure clock, according to the lawsuit. During her second pregnancy in 2021, Nikolova applied to become an associate professor with tenure, the lawsuit reads.

Nikolova exceeded BC’s tenure standards through her job performance and publications, according to the suit.

“In her dossier, Nikolova expressly referenced her maternity leave three times to ensure that reviewers would not count that year toward her expected productivity,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit states that the nine members of the marketing department’s Tenured Faculty Committee (TFC)—composed of tenured marketing department faculty—voted unanimously that Nikolova should be promoted with tenure.

“‘We believe that the Carroll School has done a good job of building and supporting Hristina’s ascent to the top-tier of her cohort and as a talented scholar and teacher,’” the TFC wrote in a September 2021 report. “‘The view of the department is that we will have to work to keep her; she is now being sought after by top-tier schools to recruit her away.’”

The Promotion and Tenure Committee (PTC)—a group of faculty members that received the TFC’s report—rejected Nikolova’s application, according to the lawsuit.

The PTC was not qualified to review her work because none of the PTC’s members were marketing scholars, had taught marketing courses, or had published in top marketing journals, the lawsuit alleges.

University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., then approved the PTC’s recommendation. He sent a letter to Nikolova on Feb. 24, 2022, informing her that her application was denied, the lawsuit says.

“‘After carefully evaluating the report submitted to me, I regret to inform you that I am not able to approve your request for advancement to Associate Professor with tenure,’” the letter reads, according to the lawsuit. “‘I realize this decision will be a major disappointment to you, but I would like you to know that you received full and fair consideration.’”

According to the lawsuit, in March of 2022, Nikolova met with CSOM deans, Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley, and Leahy to discuss the denial of her application. During this meeting, Leahy implied that Nikolova “was (or should be) more committed to being a wife and mother than to her work,” the lawsuit alleges.

“[Leahy] told her that ‘Your husband is lucky to have you as his wife and your children are lucky to have you as their mother,’ or words very close to this effect,” the lawsuit reads.

Nikolova submitted a letter of appeal to the Faculty Review Panel (FRP) and Leahy in April of 2022, “in which she expressly opposed discrimination against her based on her sex, pregnancy and maternity,” the lawsuit states.

On June 13, 2022, the FRP, a group of nine elected at-large faculty members from the University’s various schools, issued a report claiming it found several instances where the PTC failed to consistently review Nikolova’s tenure application in accordance with University statutes, the lawsuit reads.

“The FRP also exposed that the PTC was either deliberately deceitful or had engaged in a sham review of Nikolova’s tenure application,” the lawsuit reads. “For example, members of the PTC told the FRP that they were ‘unaware of Nikolova’s maternity leave when evaluating [Nikolova’s] file.’ However, Nikolova had identified her maternity leave three times in her Promotion and Tenure Dossier.”

The lawsuit states that on July 6, 2022, Leahy overruled the FRP’s findings and upheld the PTC’s recommendation to deny Nikolova tenure.

Nikolova reapplied for tenure in 2022, and once again the marketing department’s tenure committee unanimously voted in favor of her promotion, the lawsuit states.

On Feb. 24, 2023—exactly one year after Leahy wrote to Nikolova informing her of her first denial for tenure—Leahy wrote an identical letter to Nikolova, denying her second application for promotion with tenure, the lawsuit says.

Nikolova then met with Leahy on March 16 to discuss the decision, while she was pregnant with her third child, according to the lawsuit.

“At the beginning of this meeting, President Leahy pointed to her belly and said, ‘I see you’re taking good care of the family!’ or words close to that effect,” the lawsuit reads.

According to the lawsuit, Nikolova filed a second appeal to another FRP on April 10, in which she allegedly identified comments by Leahy and CSOM dean Andrew Boynton that “reflected gender-stereotyped notions of a new mother’s role with respect to work and family.”

On June 21, Leahy overruled the second FRP and upheld BC’s decision to deny Nikolova promotion with tenure, the lawsuit states.

Nikolova argued that she substantially exceeded BC’s standards for tenure, citing her research and awards, but she ultimately left BC earlier this year. The University, she alleges, “threw her to the curb like a bag of trash.”

“But all of Nikolova’s extraordinary accomplishments were for naught because of BC’s gender-stereotyped views about new mothers, its retaliatory animus, its bad faith failure to honor the promises it made lure Nikolova to join CSOM, and its willful refusal to follow the promotion and tenure standards set forth in its own University Statutes,” the lawsuit reads.

November 17, 2023