“How can knowledge be responsibly applied to consequential problems? How can it be helpful to individuals as well as institutions?”  These are the questions, according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, that animate those who engage in the “scholarship of practice.” Ann Olivarius has tried throughout her career to be worthy of that description. 

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She started early.  Her parents thought she should alternate between attending a local college one semester, then making the money necessary to pay for it the next semester; instead she got herself into Yale and worked two jobs to help pay her way, along with generous help from her grandparents.  Because she was a campus activist and co-founded the Yale Undergraduate Women’s Caucus, the Yale Corporation asked her to chair a study report on the Status of Women at the university, in advance of the tenth anniversary of their admission.  The Report was wide-ranging and inventive.  It included testimonies from dozens of students and faculty, some humorous, some deeply serious, providing a comprehensive portrait of how women were faring in a place that had excluded them for 260 years.  It was a deft combination of reporting, scholarship and advocacy.

As she sought out these testimonies, Olivarius heard numerous accounts of unwanted advances by professors, ranging from sexual harassment to rape.  So enormous was the distress from this abuse that some victims were dropping out of the university; some had attempted suicide.  Yet it all happened in silence. Yale had no policies to handle what we now call “sexual harassment,” then a term just being devised and tried out by feminist thinkers (including Olivarius).  Repeat offenders got away with it because there was no centralised system for collecting reports of violations, and women felt shame for what they thought was their own problem, not something that was the product of a broader system of inequality.  In the era of #MeToo it is difficult to recollect that forty years ago almost no one had put the pieces together to think that sexual harassment was a real phenomenon. Through hard thinking and study, Ann helped bring into focus a serious social problem that women had previously accepted in impotent silence.   

Olivarius followed up the Report by requesting Yale officials to formulate a simple grievance procedure and central repository for complaints about sexual harassment and violence.  They appeared sympathetic, but in fact tried to run out the clock before she graduated, making repeated promises on which they reneged.  Ultimately they said they would be defending the male professors.  Olivarius then organised several undergraduates and one male professor to file a lawsuit against the University.  That required courage and caused controversy; the deputy head of the Yale PR department briefed journalists off the record that she was about to flunk out (she graduated with highest honors) and was a lesbian (in those days considered a terrible insult). The lawsuit reflected the best kind of legal scholarship, identifying a place where the law’s protections might practically be expanded in a way others had not yet perceived.  Olivarius, working with the legal theorist Catharine A. MacKinnon and trial attorneys Anne Simon and Kent Harvey, devised a novel legal argument based on Title IX, which was part of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the US civil rights statutes.  Title IX bars discrimination by any school that receives government funds.  Olivarius and her colleagues argued that Yale, by failing to have any procedures to handle complaints of sexual harassment and assault, violated Title IX by effectively discriminating against (mostly) women on the basis of gender.  It was the first time that anybody had used Title IX to challenge the failure of a university to protect against gender-based violence.  That case, Alexander v. Yale, set precedent because the courts held that for a University to have no system for handling sexual harassment constituted sex discrimination, and was therefore illegal.  Yale ultimately created a Sexual Harassment Grievance Board.  In the years since, virtually every other institution of higher education in the United States, and now many in the UK and around the world, has done something similar.   

It is also noteworthy that Olivarius coined the now-common term “date rape” while she was at Yale.  This was a simple, effective way of encapsulating a form of violence against women – now understood to be commonplace – that had previously been accepted in bitter silence as just the way life works.  Rapists were not just strangers lurking in bushes, but could be boyfriends, classmates, friends and acquaintances, and finding a way to talk about this, to think about the phenomenon through a new use of language, was a form of empowerment with important social consequences. 

At Yale College, Olivarius graduated summa cum laude in Political Science and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society.  At Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar, she wrote a DPhil in Economics at Somerville College titled “Working Democracy: Analysis and Prospects of British Worker Co-operatives.”  Her thesis won the Nuffield Prize for an outstanding doctorate in Economics, and was also supported by the American Association of University Women. 

Olivarius’ DPhil thesis untangled an economic puzzle.  Worker cooperatives, despite a growth spurt in the 19th century, had remained marginal to the British economy. They experienced recurrent difficulties in attracting investment and scaling up to the size needed to compete seriously against traditional firms. By the mid-1970s, however, there was a remarkable upsurge of new companies experimenting with democratic methods. The thesis focused on whether their flourishing meant democracy could now be an organizing principle for successful businesses more generally.  Are the weaknesses apparent in cooperatives inherent?  Or could they, with the aid of new policies, come to play a significant role in economic growth?  The thesis concluded that cooperatives are not intrinsically flawed (they fail at the same rate as traditional small businesses).  But cooperatives place an unusual range of demands on their members which, in a legal, financial, and political climate not yet geared to educating workers in the “soft skills” needed to succeed in democratic organization, made it unlikely that cooperatives would become widespread.  Olivarius’ thesis remains one of the most extensive, fine-grained scholarly analyses of cooperatives in Britain.

Olivarius then returned to Yale. She became the first person ever to complete a joint graduate degree program at Yale Law School and Yale School of Management, normally a five-year course, in three years, receiving highest honors for her combined JD and MBA degrees. 

When Olivarius worked for several major companies and a multinational law firm, she researched and designed creative structures for high-profile financial deals that brought wealth and jobs.  As legal and financial advisor for Perot Systems, a Fortune 500 company, Olivarius devised new software licensing contracts that were widely adopted throughout the industry.  She also designed the European structure for the corporation which allowed Perot Systems to grow to more than 23,000 employees with an annual revenue of £2.2 billion before its acquisition in 2009 by Dell, Inc.  As a lawyer in private practice, she also advised the Government of Mexico as it negotiated NAFTA.  During these early working years, too, Olivarius developed new strategies for advancing diversity and workplace safety for women while also increasing revenues. 

In 2004, Olivarius founded the Rhodes Project, a research institute devoted to developing a comprehensive study of high-achieving women worldwide.   She also serves as Principal Investigator.  Through multiple methodologies, the Project has collected extensive data - including hundreds of hours of interviews and tens of thousands of lines of survey coding - on Rhodes Scholar women.  It is the largest-ever scholarly investigation of how gender shapes successful women’s professional careers and life choices – their accomplishment, failures, and ongoing struggles.   The Rhodes Project also analyses the gender gap in leadership in government, business, law, medicine, the academy, and non-profits.  After overseeing several research teams, drawn from both the academic and private sectors, Olivarius is nearing completion of a book that will present the results of the Rhodes Project to a wide readership and which will engage policy makers and key public debates.  She has been asked by Oxford University Press to submit the manuscript for publication review.  The books is tentatively titled What Rhodes Women Want.

Preliminary results of the study have been presented at Rhodes House, Oxford University, and at a research colloquium at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, USA.  

Olivarius has published several articles in scholarly journals.  She discussed the theories of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black on the First Amendment and free speech in an issue of the Beverly Hills Bar Association Journal.  In 2017, she published an article in The Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality, based on her work of nearly four decades legally representing victims of sexual violence and harassment.  The article explores how Title IX has helped to reduce gender-based discrimination and suggests further solutions to this continuing problem at universities.  Olivarius has also contributed op-ed columns to several major news outlets, including the Huffington Post, Telegraph, Guardian and Financial Times

She has also been quoted in numerous media that cover the academy, particularly for her efforts to combat sexual harassment in universities, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Science, The New York Times, Nature, and others.

Olivarius frequently speaks at scholarly symposia.  She has presented her research and work at University of East London, Kent Critical Law Society, Queen Mary University of London Criminal Justice Society, Al-Maktoum College of Higher Education in Dundee, Wadham College, Oxford, and the Annual Conference of the Associazione Donne e Scienza at the University of Pisa, Italy.  In December 2018 she will address a conference on gender diversity in biomedical science at the Banbury Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and in January 2019, Olivarius served as an invited British expert at the Futures Congress, a major annual gathering of intellectuals and practitioners organized by the Senate of Chile. This event has become the most important yearly scientific conference in Latin America.

Ann in the Media: Scholarship

Olivarius, Ann, “Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Academy,” Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality 53, no. 1 (2017) : 11-36. 

Olivarius, Ann. “Absolutely Black: A Judicial Philosophy,” Beverly Hills Bar Association Journal, volume 11, 1977, pages 11-24.

Olivarius, Ann, “Cecil Rhodes’ statue will gaze down at another kind of scholar,” Financial Times, 21 February 2018,

Media of Ann