MIT built its own Ellen Pao before the Ivy League did: Gretchen Kalonji

Can you think of anyone with top academic credentials who got fired from a job for underperformance, sued to get paid for having XX chromosomes, and who was tied to the world of nonstandard sexuality?

No, not Ellen Pao of Princeton and Harvard, Kleiner Perkins/Reddit, and (at least formerly) gay men.

Gretchen Kalonji, a 1980 graduate from the MIT materials science department, eventually became a professor at MIT. She was denied tenure in 1988, analogous to Ellen Pao’s failure to be promoted to senior partner at Kleiner. Kalonji sued MIT, eventually settling in 1995 for “an undisclosed amount” plus “MIT also agreed to spend at least $50,000 a year for 5 years on a national program encouraging women and minority grad students and postdocs to move onto university faculties.” (

Kalonji moved west and ended up in a same-sex relationship with Denice Denton, the chancellor of University of California Santa Cruz. Denton was described as “admired for overcoming gender and sexual-orientation biases and for taking a practical approach to social justice issues” and “ensnared in an investigation into unreported pay and perks in the UC system and was criticized after $600,000 in renovations were made to her university home.”

Denton arranged a $192,000/year job for Kalonji as the University of California’s “director of international strategy development” (sfgate; WSJ) . Denton subsequently committed suicide, leaving an estate worth perhaps $2 million. Kalonji then sued the estate for more than 100 percent of this value (argument: (1) if it had been legal for two women to be married then Denton would have married her; (2) had they in fact been married, Denton would have updated her will and left everything to Kalonji instead of to Denton’s blood relatives). (Santa Cruz Sentinel) Kalonji ultimately settled this lawsuit in exchange for roughly $750,000 in real estate (Santa Cruz Sentinel).

What do readers think? The New York Times gives all credit to Ellen Pao and, implicitly, Princeton and Harvard. But it would seem that an MIT graduate blazed the trail…

4 thoughts on “MIT built its own Ellen Pao before the Ivy League did: Gretchen Kalonji

  1. Academia and government is far ahead of industry when it comes to scams like this and big corporations are ahead of private industry. It all comes down to whose money your are giving away and how much your organization can afford to be dragged down by hiring on criteria other than merit. College administrators have no yardsticks for productivity and they are spending someone else’s money so they can afford to be generous to race/gender scammers.

  2. Moral indignation aside, isn’t what Ellen Pao, Gretchen Kalonji, no doubt countless others, Oxford comma AND THEIR RESPECTIVE LAWYERS did m.o.s.t.l.y a logical extension of that All-American holiest of grails anchored in the Declaration of Independence: pursuit of happiness? Plus of course maximization of profit… otherwise what would be the point. All they’ve done was ACT WITHIN LEGAL LIMITS of what the US society @ large deems acceptable | encourages | condones | (delete as appropriate).

  3. There are other interesting symmetries between Gretchen Kalonji and Ellen Pao/Fletcher. While Prof. Kalonji was a faculty member at MIT, she was married to an African man from the Congo. Therefore, she also changed her orientation over the years (just like Buddy Fletcher).


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