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Mark LoParco, head of UM Dining, left, listens with other faculty and staff members during a campus meeting last year.

A heralded director at the University of Montana is under investigation by the Montana Human Rights Bureau for allegations of discrimination based on gender and disability.

Mark LoParco, subject of the investigation, is retiring in May after 25 years as head of UM Dining Services. LoParco denied this week that UM asked him to retire or that his coming departure is linked to allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.

UM spokeswoman Paula Short said the university respects the privacy of its employees and cannot comment on personnel issues.

"The University of Montana has denied the allegations in the complaint filed with the Human Rights Bureau, though we cannot comment further while the matter is still pending," Short said in an email.

In September 2016, former UM Dining staff Kathleen "Kate" Slack and Rebecca "Becca" Shern filed a complaint against LoParco.

In it, the women allege LoParco, their ultimate supervisor, bullied and belittled them and other women, subjected them to misogynistic and sexist treatment, and unfairly promoted and compensated men while denying advancement to women.

Slack and Shern declined to comment through their attorney, Matthew Lowy, of Lowy Law in Missoula.

However, the document alleges UM had ample opportunity to remedy their concerns and those of other staff. The complaint alleges discrimination, constructive (that is, forced) discharge, and a hostile work environment, and it asks for expedited mediation and compensation.

"A legend has grown around Mark LoParco," said the complaint. "The University's awareness of these problems is documented through exit interviews, EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaints, union grievances, and whatever HR collected but was not destroyed."

UM is a top employer in Missoula, hiring thousands of students, faculty, staff and administrators. In an email, President Sheila Stearns noted that challenges are inherent with personnel.

"Like all employers, we occasionally receive complaints about workplace issues," Stearns said. "We address them with respect and diligence.

"We can never address particular complaints through the media because of personnel privacy of all involved. The basic fact is that we take all concerns raised about improper behavior seriously and address them in accordance with our policies and procedures.”

***

The complaint pending with the Human Rights Bureau of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry notes numerous examples, including the following allegations:

  • LoParco's behavior included "commenting on women employee's bodies, describing an employee as 'Eeyore' for her appearance and demeanor, dancing with a 'g-string' on his head at a national conference, complaining about the amount he had to pay female employees, and telling female students at the omelet bar that he was making them an 'orgasm on a plate.'"
  • In 2011, Slack discovered she had vision problems and could not drive at night, and UM Dining accommodated her "mild disability," the complaint said. But Slack had a foot surgery in December 2015, and when she returned to work in February 2016, her supervisor told her that her job had changed, and she would be doing tasks such as waitressing and cooking, "problematic because she would still be in a boot." Slack learned her schedule also had changed to end at 7 p.m., "even more problematic since she has night blindness and cannot see to drive in the dark." When she met with LoParco, he told her he actually wanted her to work until 9 p.m., and he said "she had to choose to either take the job the way it is or to quit."

  • Several department reorganizations left Shern performing three separate jobs – director of health and professional development, registered sanitarian, and registered dietitian – "accomplishing more than the male associate directors." When Shern presented LoParco a plan to pay her fair wages, he "countered Becca's request with a demotion," making her a contract employee and stripping key responsibilities.

  • The complaint also discussed treatment against other staff. "Kate witnessed horrible treatment by Mr. LoParco of his former assistant, Christina Voyles," said the document. "Voyles was given a higher position at a lower wage than some of the people she then supervised." 

Shern and Slack both left UM Dining last spring.

On Slack's departure: "March 9, 2016, was Kate Slack's last day of work at UM Dining," the complaint said. "The stated reason her firing occurred was her position had been eliminated. This was a pretext. Two weeks to the day after being told the position as assistant director of retail was being eliminated and there was no place left in UM Dining for Kate to work, (a man) was asked by (Slack's supervisor) if he would please consider applying for the position of assistant director of retail."

On Shern's departure: "April 8, 2016, Becca notified Mr. LoParco that in response to his offer of a demotion, she was resigning her position of nine years, effective April 22, 2016," the complaint said. "In effect, his sexist, misogynistic, contemptible behavior was too much for her. Like (four former staff), and other former employees who have not yet been unearthed or want to put the terrible chapter of employment under LoParco behind them, Becca was constructively fired from her position by Mark LoParco."

The complaint notes men in the department also disapproved of the director's acts.

"Many male employees have expressed discomfort with Mr. LoParco's behavior as well," the complaint said. "They have voiced concerns ranging from his poor management, egregious treatment of subordinates, and misogynistic treatment of his female employees."

***

Last month, UM officials suggested the Missoulian feature retiring employee LoParco, a "dynamo" who has earned many awards and been "sort (of) an over-sized figure on campus." LoParco has been honored by UM for his work in sustainability and by a national association for his leadership in the collegiate food industry.

Last week, the Missoulian published a profile of LoParco noting his accomplishments in food service at UM and his contributions to the industry. Voyles, who previously worked at UM Dining, read the story and wrote a letter to UM in response and copied the Missoulian.

In the lengthy correspondence, Voyles described her own experience with LoParco and her disappointment with UM's "administrative incompetence." She worked seven years for UM Dining and said she watched LoParco "get away with poor, unethical management and financially questionable behavior."

"UM's continued drop in enrollment is a culmination of the poor choices UM makes: from covering up a variety of inexcusable behaviors by ingrates like LoParco to punishing the wrong people, it affects everything,'' she said.

"From the student who wants out of their meal plan because they are tired of being harassed by 'an old, balding, fat guy in tights,' at omelet bars. To staff whose careers were ended by LoParco simply because he decided he no longer liked them ... 

"Perhaps what I find most disappointing is that there have been women every step of the way that have been made aware of LoParco's behavior and have done nothing to stop it."

***

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated UM for failing to properly handle reports of sexual assaults and doing so “in a manner that has a disparate impact on women.” Under former President Royce Engstrom, UM fired staff, changed policies, mandated training, and completed an agreement with the federal agency to address gender bias.

In the complaint, Slack and Shern suggest more training is needed for UM Dining.

"Managers, supervisors, and the human resources department at UM Dining Services appear to require additional training and commitment to the fact that gender and disability are protected by federal law, must not be the reason for formal criticism, denied opportunities, or informal complaining.

"Disabilities and gender cannot be held against an employee."

UM didn't directly address whether a culture shift must still take place on campus. Spokeswoman Short said the following:

"The university seeks out best practices involving personnel management, including training in sexual harassment/equal opportunity, discrimination prevention, drug-free workplace, diversity, safety, mandatory reporting on sexual misconduct and supervision.

"The university follows its policies and processes in addressing every complaint, and we do it respectfully and fairly for all parties.

"There will be individuals who are dissatisfied with the outcome, and they will take further steps as is their prerogative, be it engaging in other processes, appealing to the media or other actions,'' Short said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.