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January 29, 2003



Smith Conference to Examine the Role of Gender in Ethical Resistance


Editor's note: Photos of Bensel-Meyers, Dierkes, Harris, Kleiman, Levy and Nunn are available. To request, contact at (413) 585-2190 or

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.-With three women whistleblowers recently honored as Time Magazine's "Persons of the Year," the role of gender in ethical resistance is timely and visible. Are women more inclined than men to blow the whistle on corruption and abuse? Is the burden of proof higher for women whistleblowers? Do women face particular retributions when they speak out?

A two-day conference at Smith College-"Women of Courage: Whistleblowers in the Public Interest"-will feature reflections by seven women who exposed violations in fields ranging from airline security to special education, customs inspection to environmental protection. In going public with the abuses they discovered, the women confronted retaliations that included death threats to their families, denial of promotion, blackballing and public defamation.

The conference, which is free and open to the public without registration, begins at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, and concludes at 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8. All sessions will take place in the Neilson Library Browsing Room.

The conference will open with an introduction by Myron Peretz Glazer, professor of sociology and co-director of Smith's Project on Women and Social Change, which is sponsoring the event. Glazer is the co-author with his wife, Penina Migdal Glazer, of "The Whistleblowers: Exposing Corruption in Government and Industry" and "The Environmental Crusaders: Confronting Disaster, Mobilizing Community." Susan Bourque, provost and dean of the faculty, will join Glazer in welcoming conference participants.

At 4 p.m., the first panel will consider "Blowing the Whistle on Issues of Racial Mistreatment." Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will recount her experience in exposing an American company in South Africa that was poisoning African workers and their families with toxic waste. In 2001, Coleman-Adebayo won a landmark case against the EPA on the basis of race, sex, color and hostile work environment. The case inspired the introduction of the "No Fear Act," legislation barring discrimination against whistleblowers in federal agencies.

Coleman-Adebayo will be joined by Cathy Harris, former inspector for the U.S. Customs Service, who revealed violations carried out by fellow inspectors against female international travelers, especially African-American women. These violations included invasive strip-searches; x-ray examinations without pregnancy tests; and prolonged detentions, sometimes involving arm or leg shackling. Harris is a community activist and organizer and the author of "Flying While Black: A Whistleblower's Story."

Louis Clark, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Government Accountability Project (GAP), will serve as moderator. All panels will include a student discussant.

Saturday's sessions will open at 9:30 a.m. with a consideration of "Old and New Issues for Whistleblowers in the Post-9/11 World." Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and a Smith graduate, will moderate a discussion between Diane Kleiman and Sandy G. Nunn, both former special agents with the U.S. Customs Service.

Kleiman, who was assigned to JFK International Airport, blew the whistle about drug overdoses and deaths of special agents, cash disappearing from property seizures, and serious airline security lapses that allowed narcotics, cash and illegal aliens to enter the country.

Nunn, while stationed in southern California, identified serious instances of corruption and obstruction of justice when she and several colleagues discovered massive shipments of narcotics being smuggled into the U.S. via pressurized railway tanker cars. In July 2001, Nunn testified before the Senate that those discoveries constituted a breach of national security and a potential terrorist threat.

Following a lunch break, the conference will reconvene at 1 p.m. to discuss "Blowing the Whistle on Educational Malpractice." Christine M. Shelton, associate professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith and co-director of the Project on Women and Social Change, will moderate a discussion among three current and former educators about abuses of funds and facilities in public education.

While serving as director of composition at the University of Tennessee, English professor Linda Bensel-Meyers uncovered a pattern of plagiarized term papers and altered grades among athletes, a practice she describes as supported by the athletic department "with the complicity of university officials." When her efforts to address the infractions led to disclosure on national television, she charged the university with tapping her phones, breaking into her office and orchestrating public defamation of her character. Although she has been removed from all administrative positions, Bensel-Meyers retains her faculty appointment and continues to fight "to expose how the university knowingly violates federal law and academic policy to exploit collegiate athletes for institutional profit."

Tina Dierkes, a kindergarten teacher in northwestern Oregon, brought suit against her school district for endangering the health of students and teachers by failing to replace light fixtures containing a hazardous substance. The school district claimed the substance was harmless tar; and even after officials learned that the substance contained the suspected carcinogen PCB, they continued to downplay the risk and took no precautionary measures. Dierkes' suit resulted in a fine of more than $300,000 against the school district for what the EPA termed "egregious violations."

As a special education teacher and social worker in New York City's public schools, Estelle Levy blew the whistle on diversion of funds intended for special education students as well as misrepresentation of special education enrollment designed to garner additional state and federal monies. The practices she uncovered "reflected the approved misuse of allotted funds" as well as "a sanctioning of mainstream students' educational needs while devaluing those of others."

The conference will conclude with a 3:30 p.m. session titled "Reflections on Whistleblowing and Gender," in which all panelists will participate. The discussion will be moderated by Penina Migdal Glazer, professor of history at Hampshire College.

"Women of Courage" is this year's Kathleen Ridder Conference, an annual Smith event designed to explore current research on gender. It was made possible by the Kathleen Ridder Fund, which honors Jill Ker Conway, Smith's president from 1975 to 1985, and by the Mary Hamilton Collett '25 Symposium Fund.

Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 55 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's college in the country.

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