Fifteen senior women faculty at Harvard are protesting against the university's decision not to grant tenure to Bonnie Honig, a 37-year-old associate professor whom her colleagues described as a "brilliant" and "highly productive" political theorist.
"Your decision to refuse Honig tenure has been greeted with shock and disbelief across the university and beyond," said a letter signed by the women, addressed to Harvard president Neil Rudenstine and leaked to the college newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. "It is especially incomprehensible given your publicly stated commitment to equality for women."
Harvard is regarded as far from conservative politically, and has been known as a leader in affirmative action programmes to promote the numbers of minority students. Last year it admitted a record number of women students - accounting for 48.5 per cent of the total, only just under half.
But the issue of numbers of women faculty - closer to 10 per cent of the men in the arts and sciences - has emerged before in fund-raising meetings with alumnae. A recent Harvard report questioned why more women had not been engaged as leaders and donors in financial campaigns. The university is running a $2 billion fund-raising drive.
The report appeared to explain why Mr Rudenstine's decision to turn down Ms Honig, without any offered explanation, sparked such an uproar. The New York Times described the letter as a "near revolutionary act" on a campus where staff are not known to be militant.
The author of two books and with graduate degrees from the London School of Economics and Johns Hopkins University, she was reported to have won a strong majority in her favour both among faculty and from four out of five tenure committee members.
But Ms Honig did not win the president's approval, even as he insisted his commitment to the advancement of women at Harvard was "unequivocal".
Government professor Seyla Benhabib, one of the 15 signatories, told the New York Times that "according to all institutional criteria and criteria of scholarship, she has fulfilled Harvard's requirement for promotion and tenure".