MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) – Details emerged Friday in a lawsuit filed by three former administrators and a current faculty member accusing the University of Montana of gender discrimination.
The Missoulian reported the lawsuit filed in U.S. district court on Wednesday alleges the university has fostered a toxic environment where women have faced discrimination and retaliation.
The plaintiffs – Catherine Cole, Barbara Koostra, Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman and Rhondie Voorhees – described in court records the treatment of the university amounted to a “good boys club” and specifically named the president of the university. Seth Bodnar, they say created a campus where women were questioned and demeaned.
The University and University of Montana system issued a statement denying the allegations.
Bodnar began serving as president of the university in 2018, having worked as an executive at General Electric Company, taught economics at West Point, and served in the US Army Special Forces Group.
Cole was hired in 2018 to serve as the university’s vice president of enrollment management and strategic communications to increase declining enrollment at the university.
The lawsuit says Bodnar did not want to hire Cole, despite having over 25 years of experience. She was selected by the hiring committee on the basis of her experience. She was making $ 170,000 a year when she started – the lowest salary among the university’s vice presidents, according to the court record.
While at the university, Cole said Bodnar “continually micromanages, tweaks and modifies his goals and tasks and sets unreasonable expectations,” according to the lawsuit. He also commented on her demeanor and physical appearance, telling her she was in a bad mood at times, asking her to smile, criticizing her tone of voice and commenting on her weight.
Cole was reportedly excluded from the meeting with the Montana Board of Regents, and she was the only “UM cabinet member who was guessed, interrupted, criticized and questioned,” according to the lawsuit.
Cole resigned in July 2020 due to the “unprofessional toxicity and discrimination” she faced. She suffered a $ 40,000 pay cut while working at a smaller university and retired in 2021. She reported suffering from physical symptoms due to the way she was treated, including depression, anxiety, migraines and other ailments.
The university reportedly retaliated against Cole by cutting her husband’s post, citing a cut in funding. However, the university is trying to rehire the position.
Koostra, the university’s former museum director, was told her contract at the university would not be renewed in November 2018 after working at the university for nearly 15 years.
Koostra has expanded the museum’s permanent collection, doubling its value to $ 30 million, according to the lawsuit. She also raised over $ 1.5 million in operating, construction and project funds for the museum.
Towards the end of his stay at the museum, Koostra alleges that Bodnar and Interim Rector Paul Kirgis asked him to decorate the downtown Missoula Marriott with the university’s permanent collection. She questioned the request, explaining that the hotel did not have proper security to house the collection. When she raised these concerns, she was accused of “refusing to cooperate,” according to the lawsuit.
In September 2018, Koostra’s office moved and the following month she informed supervisors about air quality issues and poor working conditions.
Less than a week later, Koostra learned that her contract would not be renewed due to “budget constraints and reorganization”.
The university then replaced her with a male museum director who had “fewer qualifications and a higher starting salary than Ms. Koostra received when she started in that post,” the lawsuit said.
Koostra was director of the museum for 14.5 years, just under the 15 years it takes to qualify for college retirement benefits.
Sontag Bowman is a Full Associate Professor in the University’s School of Social Work. She has been working at the university since 2008.
Sontag Bowman says the university “has discouraged her opportunities for professional growth and leadership, while favoring her male counterparts,” causing her to hit a brick wall in her career.
She said leadership roles across campus have continually been assigned to men, and Bodnar perpetuated this by failing to “consider or address gender equity.” She did not experience any limitations in her career prior to Bodnar’s tenure, and she always feared reprisals from the institution for acting as a whistleblower on the sexism of the university, she added.
Voorhees, the former Dean of Students, started at the university in 2012 with over 30 years of experience in higher education. She was hired while the US Department of Education and the Department of Justice were investigating a college sexual assault scandal.
In his role, Voorhees alerted the university to numerous Title IX violations and security concerns.
“She made repeated efforts to bring to light many of the concerns she had about students and campus safety, especially for students and faculty,” the lawsuit said.
Its reports have often been confronted with “conflict, minimized and / or entirely ignored,” the lawsuit said. Acting through Lucy France, the university’s legal adviser, the university has often overstepped Voorhees’ decisions taken to improve campus security.
The university abolished the post of Dean of Students in August 2018 and terminated Voorhees’ contract.
All four plaintiffs were in good standing with the university and they never received disciplinary action or bad reviews, according to the lawsuit.
A joint statement from the University and the Montana university system released Wednesday said the institutions “strongly believe that these claims are without merit and without merit.”
“The University of Montana is committed to providing a work and learning environment free from all forms of discrimination,” the statement said.
Maggie Bornstein, director of the university’s student-run women’s resource center, told the Missoulian that she was “not at all surprised” after hearing the news of the lawsuit.
“I think retaliation is so common on the UM campus, and I think it’s very common for students as well,” Bornstein said.