UM professionals sue, alleging discriminatory “brick wall” for careers ~ Missoula Current

MISSOULA – Four former and current high-ranking University of Montana employees sued the college on Wednesday, alleging that its administration has created a “culture of retaliation” that punishes professional women who challenge its authority.

“UM has not created a glass ceiling for the careers of these women,” the lawsuit said. “UM has created a brick wall for the careers of these women. “

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Missoula, seeks damages for the plaintiffs and a ruling that UM violates Title IX of federal law, which prohibits discrimination against women in educational institutions that receive federal funding.

The lawsuit also singled out MU President Seth Bodnar, noting that his previous career had been with General Electric and the military – two entities with a history of discrimination against women, according to the lawsuit. .

“For professional women at UM, their already limited paths to professional success have narrowed rapidly,” the lawsuit said. “Under President Bodnar’s leadership… young people, perceived attractiveness and / or physical fitness were relevant factors for women embarking on the path to success.

“It was well known that under President Bodnar, the careers of athletic women flourished, while older and less attractive women were publicly criticized.”

UM spokesman Dave Kuntz told MTN News that the state school and university system – also a defendant in the lawsuit – “firmly believe that these allegations are without merit and without foundation.”

“We look forward to vigorously defending our institutions in court,” he said in a statement. “The University of Montana is committed to providing a work and learning environment free from all forms of discrimination.”

While the lawsuit currently has only four plaintiffs, one of the attorneys representing the women, Hillary Carls de Bozeman, said she suspected other female UM professionals of having had similar experiences and that they could be added as complainants as they arise.

The plaintiffs who filed the suit on Wednesday are Catherine Cole, a former vice president of UM; Barbara Koostra, former director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at UM; Rhondie Vorhees, former Dean of Students at UM; and Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman, associate professor of social work at UM.

All four women said they faced discrimination and reprisals, especially after they disagreed or challenged decisions made by Bodnar and the UM administration.

The lawsuit said UM’s sports programs, such as the men’s soccer program, fostered a “good old boys’ club” culture that excluded women from activities and benefits “regularly given to their male counterparts.”

One of the complainants, Catherine Cole, was hired in 2018 as the college’s vice-president for enrollment management and strategic communications. Her job was to help UM recover from declining enrollment, following scandals and sexual assault investigations in the 2010s, the lawsuit said.

But despite “countless praise and accolades” for her performance, Bodnar micromanaged her, changed her tasks, told her she was “in a bad mood”, put her down and commented on her appearance and weight. , depending on the costume.

Cole resigned last year and the university also terminated her husband’s post at UM in retaliation, according to the lawsuit.

Koostra, the museum’s director, said her office was moved to a building that was later found to be contaminated with asbestos and her contract was not renewed, after opposing the request de Bodnar to place some of the museum’s valuable artwork in a downtown hotel, according to the lawsuit.

And Vorhees, the former dean of students, said she was often dismissed or ignored on campus security issues, for students and others, and that her post was ultimately cut in 2018, the lawsuit said. .

Sherine Blackford, another lawyer for Bozeman representing the plaintiffs, told MTN News that Title IX is “a fairly broad and sweeping law” that prohibits discrimination against women in many forms.

“The way (discrimination) can be pervasive is to create a culture of retaliation, to create an environment that isn’t necessarily black and white sexual harassment, but something where women don’t get the same treatment as men, and as a result, the benefit they would have received in the educational institution where they worked (is) not the same, ”she said.

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