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Jury awards $1.3 million to professor in American University age-discrimination case

Students walk across the campus at American University in Washington on Sept. 21, 2017. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Loubna Skalli Hanna had been recommended for tenure at American University after intensive evaluations and years of being a scholar on the Middle East at the school. When tenure was abruptly denied, she felt more than blindsided, she said. “Utter shock and devastation. … There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that prepared me for the outcome."

A D.C. Superior Court jury on Monday granted $1.3 million in damages after unanimously agreeing that the university had discriminated against Hanna because of her age.

Hanna’s complaint, filed in September 2015, claimed that her tenure application was denied at the provost level — the last step of a long process — despite prior recommendations. The dean of the School of International Service at American University, for example, had agreed “with the assessment of the Rank and Tenure Committee that she is ‘on a trajectory to be a star in her field,'” according to the complaint.

But then-provost Scott Bass denied her tenure and promotion in 2014, writing that her scholarship did not merit it.

Bass did not respond to a request for comment.

Mark Story, a university spokesman, said in a statement, “While we respect the jury system, we feel strongly that no discrimination took place in this case. We are evaluating our options and considering next steps. We will not comment further on matters pending before the court.”

Hanna appealed the provost’s decision to the faculty grievance committee, which wrote that it was “disturbing that the denial of tenure and promotion was not preceded by any warning signals along the way.” If faculty members are following the guidelines given by the school and getting endorsements at all levels of review, including experts from other universities, but are then denied promotion, the committee wrote, “there is a serious problem with the tenure process as a whole.”

In early 2015, the committee concluded after looking at other tenure files that there was a statistically significant pattern of age discrimination at the university.

The faculty committee’s findings showed a breakdown in the internal processes at the university, said Lynne Bernabei, an attorney for Hanna.

The jury agreed that her age was a significant factor in the decision to deny Hanna’s tenure and promotion, and granted her $1,151,000 in compensatory damages and $175,000 for emotional distress.

Hanna was 52 at the time tenure was denied.

She is now working on a contract basis with the University of California Washington Center, teaching and doing research.

The verdict, she said, “is a relief, it’s a validation, it’s a victory for justice. … It is huge.”