Kristie Koski is waiting to make tenure. Like many academic chemists, she submitted her tenure package in her sixth year as a professor. That’s when professors “are expected to be ready for promotion,” according to the personnel manual at the University of California, Davis, where Koski is a physical chemist. The traditional expectation in academia is that a professor makes—or is denied—tenure in their seventh year.
Koski submitted in 2019. It wasn’t COVID-19 that disrupted her progression, as it has for others. The university denied Koski tenure for alleged violations of the faculty code of conduct related to two of her trainees. Koski denies she did anything wrong. A faculty senate committee and a California state court both found that the university had not proved some of its charges. But UC Davis didn’t restart her tenure process until this past summer.
Four years on, Koski is in a kind of limbo. Her career advancement at UC Davis is stalled. The absence on her résumé of promotion to tenured professor is more prominent with each passing year. It would presumably complicate any attempt to find a new job. Some of Koski’s colleagues say that, regardless of the eventual outcome, she has already paid dearly, both emotionally and in her professional reputation.
A full explanation of why this happened to Koski remains out of reach. She and several other UC Davis employees declined C&EN’s requests for interviews, through a lawyer and a university spokesperson, respectively. Citing confidentiality rules, the university also refused to release records relating to Koski’s tenure application and its investigations of her alleged wrongdoing.
Through interviews and public documents, C&EN has pieced together a partial picture of what happened, although many details cannot be verified independently. What does seem clear is that Koski got stuck in a web of bureaucracy, power dynamics, and personal relationships. It’s a tangle that seems easy to avoid for some but impossible to escape for others.
Koski arrived at UC Davis in 2016, lured away from a tenure-track position at Brown University that she took in 2013. She had already won a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) grant from the Faculty Early Career Development Program for her work on how sound moves through 2D materials. One UC Davis chemistry professor recalls that everyone in the department appeared impressed by Koski after she interviewed for the job; that person has asked to remain anonymous because they are an active member of the faculty.
Koski seemed to find her feet in the department quickly. She continued earning grants from the NSF, National Institutes of Health, and other funders. She won a patent and applied for another.
The Journal of Physics included her in a list of 50 rising female stars in physics.
But while she gained the respect and admiration of some of her colleagues, she clashed with Jared Shaw, an organic chemist who has been a UC Davis professor since 2007.
He would go on to be department chair from July 2018 until June 2022.
In November 2017, Shaw sent an email to five department members, including Koski, who had joined within the past 2 years. “You, collectively, as the young, kid-free crowd should make every effort to attend the dinners with the visiting candidates later this quarter. . . . It helps with something that others can’t do as easily,” it read in part.
Shaw wrote that when he was a young professor he had worried about going to a lot of candidate dinners, as it might look as if he were just trying to eat well on his department’s dime. On the contrary, he wrote, “We will all thank you!!!”
Koski bristled at Shaw’s request and saw it as discriminatory toward department members who were single or didn’t have children, according to a lawsuit she filed in a California state court in September 2022 against Shaw, the Regents of the University of California, and others. That case has not yet gone to trial. She mentioned the email to an associate dean the following summer, when Shaw was being considered for department chair.
There were also other incidents. In 2018, Koski went to Shaw, who by then was the department chair, about fume hoods in her lab that had been broken for several months. According to the UC Davis professor who requested anonymity, Koski threatened to leave when Shaw told her the department couldn’t fix them. Shaw later summoned Koski’s senior faculty mentors about her behavior; the “kid-free” email came up again in that meeting.
A year later, Koski was trying to decide whether to report possible sexual harassment by a graduate student. Her lawsuit describes several incidents. At a lunch with Koski’s lab group in June 2019, the student joked about what an undergraduate could fit into her mouth. In July, she found a graphic cartoon of a penis, apparently drawn by the same graduate student, in a notebook in the lab.
She also discovered that he had watched what the lawsuit describes as “sexually suggestive anime” with two other female undergraduates; Koski later found those three in a darkened laser lab that the undergrads weren’t trained to work in. She warned the graduate student that his behavior could be considered sexual harassment and that she was required to report such harassment.
She shared her uncertainty about whether the student’s behavior constituted sexual harassment with chemist David Manke, and his colleague, physicist Grant O’Rielly, during the last week of July, when she visited Manke at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
O’Rielly, who was chair of his department at the time, recalls telling her: “You have to report this.” Koski would have violated university policy if she hadn’t taken her concerns to the appropriate authorities, he adds.
Koski did go to Shaw, the chemistry department chair, on Aug. 1, 2019, about what she had witnessed. He told her to report the incidents to the UC Davis Harassment and Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program (HDAPP), but Koski did not do so. The University of California system-wide sexual harassment and sexual violence policy includes “department chairs” in the list of people employees can report incidents to. Koski believed that telling Shaw satisfied the university’s reporting requirement.
She didn’t know that the graduate student had gone to Shaw and another professor while she was in Massachusetts and described their conversation about his behavior. According to her suit, Shaw advised him to report Koski to Daniel Gray, the director of academic employment and labor relations in the academic affairs office. Gray has since retired. The student did so July 31, the day before Koski’s own discussion with Shaw. The graduate student transferred to another professor’s group Aug. 2, with Koski’s blessing.
Koski’s lawsuit notes that Shaw reminded her twice in the subsequent days to file a sexual harassment report, which she did not do. Instead, on Aug. 6, Shaw reported to HDAPP Koski’s concerns about the graduate student’s behavior as well as the student’s allegations, which the suit describes as “bullying and intimidation by Dr. Koski.” Koski’s suit claims that Gray contacted HDAPP “and told them to expect a false report” from her.
The second of Koski’s alleged violations of the faculty code of conduct happened later that summer. A former graduate student who was still working in Koski’s lab went to a new job in June 2019 but did not clean up his lab space or return his keys before he left.
After her email reminders went unheeded, Koski called the former student’s new boss to ask her to get a message to him. “He needs to come in during normal working hours, turn in his keys, and deal with this checkout issues,” Koski said, according to a transcript of a voicemail she included in a rebuttal to the university’s misconduct findings.
The former student didn’t make any report about Koski’s call. But Gray heard the story from one of the undergrads he interviewed as he investigated the first graduate student’s allegation that Koski’s report of potential sexual harassment constituted bullying. Philip Kass, the UC Davis vice provost for academic affairs, had directed Gray to look into those allegations, according to Koski’s lawsuit.
This was in August 2019. While Gray investigated Koski, HDAPP was investigating the first graduate student’s possible sexual harassment, as reported by Koski to Shaw. That process included interviewing Koski about her observations.
More than a year later, when a committee of the UC Davis Academic Senate considered the allegations against Koski, it decided that only the call about the lab checkout was inappropriate; her report about the first student’s possible sexual harassment was not.
Koski did not learn about Gray’s inquiry until mid-September 2019. Meanwhile, she had filed her application for tenure Aug. 7. Her lawsuit alleges that two other chemists had their tenure hearings heard in October and November 2019, while hers was delayed without an explanation.
Koski’s suit also describes emails and meetings between Shaw, Gray, Kass, and UC Davis lawyer Sheila O’Rourke in which they planned how to present the findings from Gray’s investigation at Koski’s faculty tenure hearing, where members of her department would vote on whether to recommend that she get tenure. Shaw even delayed that hearing until Gray’s report was ready, the lawsuit alleges.
On Jan. 15, 2020, the full chemistry department faculty gathered to vote on Koski’s application for tenure. A committee of three professors had reviewed her application and presented their recommendation to the faculty. The committee’s recommendation was a strong endorsement for Koski’s promotion, according to people who were in the room.
After the review committee’s presentation, Shaw distributed a two-page letter written by James DiCaprio, the school’s associate director of academic employment and labor relations at the time. It described details of the allegations against Koski and asserted that, based on Gray’s investigation, she had violated the university’s faculty code of conduct. A judge would later rule that decisions about faculty code of conduct violations should be made by the academic senate. Koski’s lawsuit asserts that Kass and O’Rourke encouraged Shaw to share the letter.
As is customary, Koski was not allowed at the hearing to rebut or explain the charges against her. According to the chemist who requested anonymity, Shaw told the faculty that its discussion was confidential and could not be shared. Shaw collected the copies of DiCaprio’s letter before the meeting ended. Despite the accusations, the department voted in favor of granting Koski tenure. Her lawsuit states that the vote was 21–7.
The results of the vote, along with DiCaprio’s letter, went to the dean’s office. Koski was able to see the letter in a meeting with Shaw after the faculty hearing. She wrote a defense against the charges and sent it to Kass, but it was not added to her tenure package, according to her lawsuit. Citing DiCaprio’s letter, Associate Dean Thomas Lee recommended that Koski be denied tenure.
The faculty senate Committee on Academic Personnel also recommended denial but cited an “unbalanced” academic record rather than the code of conduct charges against Koski, according to her lawsuit. On July 2, 2020, Koski was officially denied tenure.
“This was the most incomprehensible thing that ever happened in my academic career,” says the anonymous professor, adding that the senate usually votes the same way as the department, yielding to its expertise.
After the January 2020 faculty meeting, Koski filed a discrimination, harassment, and retaliation complaint with the university, as well as a whistleblower complaint. The university closed its investigations of both complaints that July without taking any action. HDAPP had closed its inquiry into the graduate student’s possible sexual harassment in October 2019 with the determination that his behavior did not violate university policy.
C&EN filed a public records request for DiCaprio’s letter and the reports from UC Davis’s investigations into actions by Koski and the first graduate student. The university denied those requests, citing the confidentiality of personnel records.
Koski appealed her tenure denial in August 2020 through procedures outlined in the personnel manual. The university appears so far to have failed to act on her appeal, and Koski accuses Kass of stopping the process.
Kass had formally notified Koski of Gray’s investigation results in February 2020, after her department tenure vote, and proposed a 3-month pay cut and a letter of censure in her personnel file. Later that year, the academic senate committee recommended a letter of censure but no pay cut.
Separately, the same committee determined that DiCaprio’s letter should not have been in Koski’s tenure package and that Shaw and others may have violated university procedures by including it.
In May 2021, against the senate committee’s recommendation, UC Davis chancellor Gary May approved a 10% pay cut for 3 months and placing the censure letter in Koski’s file. In a different lawsuit that Koski filed in 2021 against the Regents of the University of California, the judge ruled that May had exceeded his authority in “an abuse of discretion.” The judge also affirmed the faculty senate committee’s decision that only Koski’s phone call violated the code of conduct.
The court ordered UC Davis to pay Koski what had been cut from her salary, as well as her legal fees. Her lawyer in that case says it has so far failed to do the latter; earlier this month, his firm began a collection action against the university for those fees.
Koski’s unresolved lawsuit, filed in 2022 against Shaw and others, alleges discrimination and retaliation. It asks for damages and legal fees, as well as an injunction against the UC Regents to prevent the alleged policy violations from happening to another professor. It is set to go to trial in January 2024.
Meanwhile, Koski is waiting. “There seems to be a really deliberate effort not to resolve her tenure decision and her appeals,” says O’Rielly of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
“It’s hard on her,” her department colleague says. “She’s trying her best. I can tell she’s stressed.” Koski’s lawyer says the last 4 years have taken a heavy toll on her mental health.
William Casey, a UC Davis geochemist, is similarly perplexed. “The administration wrecked the career of one of the most talented young physical chemists in the nation” by tainting the evaluation of her academic performance with its allegations of misconduct, he says. Casey adds that he has seen other, less egregious examples of administrators interfering with promotions or raises, which he sees as evaluations of academic performance. He thinks administrative reforms are needed to keep scholarly appraisals and investigations of misconduct separate.
“UC Davis is committed to maintaining an inclusive, respectful, and productive learning, teaching, and working environment for all members of our community,” a spokesman tells C&EN.
Koski claims that the university has not addressed her tenure appeal. But it is re-running her application for tenure, which now includes the official letter of censure.
In May 2023, the chemistry department again voted in Koski’s favor. Since the first go-round, there is a new chemistry department chair, a new dean, and new faculty senate committees. But 5 months after the second vote, there is no certainty that Koski will make tenure.
Samuel Lemonick is a freelance reporter living in Maine.