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Lawsuit against University of Montana alleges sex bias

August 6, 2021 GMT

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — Details emerged Friday in a lawsuit filed by three former administrators and one current faculty member accusing the University of Montana of sex-based discrimination.

The Missoulian reported the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday alleges the university fostered a toxic environment where women were discriminated and retaliated against.

The complainants — Catherine Cole, Barbara Koostra, Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman and Rhondie Voorhees — described in court filings treatment from the university that amounted to a “good ‘ol boys’ club” and specifically pointed to university President Seth Bodnar, who they say created a campus where women were questioned and belittled.

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The university and the Montana University System issued a statement denying the allegations.

Bodnar began serving as university president in 2018, after working as an executive in General Electric Company, teaching economics at West Point, and serving in the U.S. Army Special Forces Group.

Cole was hired in 2018 to serve as the university’s vice president of enrollment management and strategic communication to raise the university’s falling enrollment numbers.

The lawsuit says Bodnar did not want to hire Cole, despite her having more than 25 years of experience. She was selected by the hiring committee based on 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 filing.

In her time at the university, Cole said Bodnar “micromanaged, continually altered and changed her goals and job duties and set unreasonable expectations,” according to the lawsuit. He also made remarks on her demeanor and physical appearance, telling her she was moody at times, asking her to smile, criticizing her tone of voice and commenting on her weight.

Cole was allegedly excluded from meeting with the Montana Board of Regents, and she was the only “UM cabinet member who was second guessed, interrupted, criticized and questioned,” the lawsuit said.

Cole resigned in July 2020 as a result of the continued “unprofessional toxicity and discrimination” she faced. She took a $40,000 pay cut working at a smaller university, and retired altogether in 2021. She reported suffering physical symptoms as a result of how she was treated, including depression, anxiety, migraines and other ailments.

The university allegedly retaliated against Cole by cutting her husband’s position, citing reduced funding. However, the university is trying to rehire the position.

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Koostra, the university’s former museum director, was informed her contract at the university would not be renewed in November 2018 after working at the university for nearly 15 years.

Koostra expanded the museum’s permanent collection, doubling its value to up to $30 million, the lawsuit said. She also collected over $1.5 million in operating, building and project funds for the museum.

Toward the end of her time with the museum, Koostra alleges Bodnar and Interim Provost Paul Kirgis asked her to decorate the downtown Missoula Marriott with the university’s permanent collection. She questioned the request, explaining the hotel didn’t have appropriate 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 was relocated, and the following month she notified higher-ups about air quality concerns and poor work conditions.

Less than a week later, Koostra was told her contract would not be renewed because of “budgetary constraints and reorganization.”

The university later replaced her with a male museum director who had “fewer qualifications and a higher starting salary than Ms. Koostra received when she began in this position,” the lawsuit said.

Koostra served as the museum director for 14.5 years, just shy of the 15 years needed to be eligible for the university’s retirement benefits.

Sontag Bowman is a tenured associate professor in the university’s School of Social Work. She has worked at the university since 2008.

Sontag Bowman alleges the university “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 the campus have continually been given to men, and Bodnar has perpetuated this by failing “to consider or address gender equity.” She did not experience limitations in her career before Bodnar’s tenure, and she has consistently feared retaliation from the institution for acting as a whistleblower on the university’s sexism, she added.

Voorhees, the former dean of students, started at the university in 2012 with more than 30 years of higher education experience. She was hired while the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice investigated a sex assault scandal at the university.

In her role, Voorhees alerted the university to many Title IX violations and safety issues.

“She made repeated efforts to bring to light many concerns she had regarding students and campus safety, especially for female students and faculty,” the lawsuit said.

Her reports were frequently met with “conflict, minimized, and/or entirely disregarded,” the lawsuit said. Acting through Lucy France, the university’s legal counsel, the university often overrode Voorhees’ decisions made to enhance campus safety.

The university eliminated the dean of students position in August 2018 and terminated Voorhees’ contract.

All four plaintiffs were in good standing with the university, and they never received disciplinary action or poor reviews, the lawsuit said.

A joint statement from the university and the Montana University System issued Wednesday says the institutions “strongly believe these claims are baseless and without merit.”

“The University of Montana is committed to providing a working and learning environment that is free from all forms of discrimination,” the statement said.

Maggie Bornstein, the director of the student-run women’s resource center at the university, told the Missoulian she was “not at all surprised” after hearing the news of the lawsuit.

“I think retaliation is so common on UM’s campus, and I think this is very common for students as well,” Bornstein said.