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Details emerge in sex bias lawsuit against University of Montana
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Details emerge in sex bias lawsuit against University of Montana

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A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday by three former and one current university employee accuses the University of Montana of sex-based discrimination and Title IX violations.

Saying UM fostered a toxic environment where women were discriminated and retaliated against, the four plaintiffs describe treatment from the university they say is part of the “good ‘ol boys’ club.”

The complainants — Catherine Cole, Barbara Koostra, Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman and Rhondie Voorhees — also specifically point to President Seth Bodnar creating a campus where women were questioned, belittled and retaliated against.

The four plaintiffs are represented by Hillary Carls and Sherine Blackford of Blackford Carls P.C. in Bozeman.

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

The suit 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 when she started — the lowest salary among the university’s vice presidents.

In her time at UM, Cole allegedly experienced a series of discriminatory remarks and treatment from Bodnar.

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.

On July 24, 2020, Cole resigned as a result of the continued “unprofessional toxicity and discrimination” she faced.

Cole took a $40,000 pay cut working at a smaller university, and shortly after retired altogether in 2021. She suffered physical symptoms as a result of how she was treated, including depression, anxiety, migraines and other ailments, the lawsuit said.

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

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

Koostra significantly 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 and fostered fundraising efforts and donor relationships.

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, the lawsuit said. 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.”

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.”

UM ceased Koostra’s work on Jan. 1, 2019, but paid her through another six-month term of her contract. The university later replaced Koostra 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 UM’s retirement benefits.

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

In the lawsuit, Sontag Bowman alleges UM has “discouraged her opportunities for professional growth and leadership, while favoring her male counterparts,” causing her to hit a brick wall in her career.

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 said. She did not experience limitations in her career before Bodnar's tenure, and 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 UM 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 UM 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, UM’s legal counsel, the university often overrode Voorhees' decisions made to enhance campus safety.

Similar to Sontag Bowman’s experience, Voorhees communicated her concerns to human resources and supervisors, despite fear of retaliation.

On Aug. 14, 2018, UM eliminated the dean of students position and terminated Voorhees’ contract. She was placed on administrative leave and paid for 10 more months, but was not allowed to work while her contract term expired.

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

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

UM and MUS “look forward to vigorously defending our institutions in court," the statement said. "The University of Montana is committed to providing a working and learning environment that is free from all forms of discrimination.”

‘Not at all surprised’

Maggie Bornstein, the director of the women’s resource center at UM, said 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.

She graduated from the university this past spring with three majors in gender studies, sociology and African American studies. While she hasn’t personally experienced retaliation or sex-based discrimination, she says she’s witnessed it and reported it to her direct supervisors for on-campus jobs.

“I felt like the way it was dealt with was basically to ask that person not to really make contact with me, which made my job significantly harder and also wasn’t an appropriate remedy to what I thought was very obvious implicit bias to a gender,” Bornstein said.

Kimberly Dudik also wasn’t shocked to hear about the lawsuit based on the hurdles women in Montana experience when pursuing careers. She  is a Missoula-based lawyer with Dudik & Associates, a firm that specializes in protecting citizen’s rights and advocating for policy reform.

Women in Montana are paid 73.2 cents for every dollar a man makes, Dudik said. She also noted that many women face an uphill battle when it comes to networking and making headway in their jobs.

“I wasn’t really surprised that there may be issues at UM and if there are issues ... I’m glad to see that women are empowered enough to take a stand against what they see as institutional problems that are based in outdated gender norms,” Dudik said.

Dudik is also an alumna of the university who graduated with her law degree in 2003. Bodnar was not yet the president when Dudik was enrolled.

While in school, she never experienced discrimination, but she did have an experience where a professor taught “something that some of us felt was a little bit of furthering the rape culture and how women are objectified,” she said.

Once it was brought to the professor’s attention, he “quickly remedied the situation and apologized,” she said.

If the claims in the lawsuit are true, Dudik hopes the university will make an effort to reform the structures that allow discrimination and retaliation to take place, she said.

She recommended that an outside entity should be consulted for a performance improvement plan because “it’s frequently too hard to monitor ourselves.”

“I think that too often when women bring up problems like this they are pushed by the wayside, told they’re overreacting, told that they need to quit causing problems or really just gaslighted into thinking that there is not an issue,” Dudik said.

“I think it’s well past time we accept that kind of behavior and that this really needs to be looked at and whatever has occurred needs to be properly followed up on.”

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