One current, three former University of Montana employees allege ‘good ol’ boys club’

Plaintiffs file Title IX case in U.S. District Court in Missoula; UM denies allegations

By: - August 4, 2021 7:12 pm

Describing a “good ol’ boys” mentality, four female plaintiffs — one current and three former employees of the University of Montana — allege the flagship created a “discriminatory and hostile educational environment,” and that UM President Seth Bodnar allowed a “retaliatory culture” against women, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

“University of Montana-Missoula (UM) has long fostered and encouraged a culture, and the resulting actions, that ‘on the basis of sex’ denied female employees the benefits of their long dedication to UM’s educational programs,” the lawsuit said. “UM did not create a glass ceiling for these women’s careers. UM created a brick wall for these women’s careers.”

The plaintiffs are former vice president of enrollment management and strategic communications Catherine “Cathy” Cole; former director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture Barbara Koostra; current tenured associate professor Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman; and former Dean of Students Rhondie Voorhees. The lawsuit said the plaintiffs suspect other women have similar experiences and reserve the right to amend the complaint to include class allegations.

Alleging violations of federal Title IX protections, the lawsuit names as defendants UM and the Montana University System, along with “John Doe Defendants 1-50,” yet to be named.

Quoted in the court document, Title IX is the 1972 amendment to a federal education act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

In a statement provided by UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz, UM and the Montana University System unequivocally denied the claims in the lawsuit.

“The University of Montana and Montana University System strongly believe these claims are baseless and without merit,” said the joint statement. “We look forward to vigorously defending our institutions in court. The University of Montana is committed to providing a working and learning environment that is free from all forms of discrimination.”

‘Second guessed, criticized and questioned’

The lawsuit discusses UM’s history with sexual assault that resulted in the 2012 investigations by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education and an ensuing agreement with the flagship. It also provided the experiences of the plaintiffs with Bodnar and legal counsel Lucy France.

Cole was hired to fix UM’s flagging enrollment. According to the lawsuit, she had increased enrollment 44 percent at the University of North Florida, but at UM, she was the lowest paid vice president at $170,000, excluded from meetings with the Montana Board of Regents, and “became the only UM cabinet member who was second guessed, interrupted, criticized and questioned.”

Cole, 50 at the time she was hired in 2018, never received a poor performance review, the lawsuit said. Yet Bodnar micromanaged her, continually changed her goals and job duties, asked her to smile, and “commented about her appearance, including her weight, noting that she could not be the face of UM,” the lawsuit said.

“This unprofessional toxicity and discrimination forced Ms. Cole to resign on July 24, 2020,” the lawsuit said.

Cole took a $40,000 pay cut and moved away from her family to a smaller university, and she has suffered from weight fluctuation, migraines, depression, anxiety, chest pain, vomiting, and increased kidney disease from stress and dehydration, the lawsuit said.

Alleged retaliation and brick walls

Koostra, the former museum director, expanded the value of the museum’s permanent collection to as much as $30 million in her 14 year tenure, nearly doubling its value, the lawsuit said. Under her direction, the museum presented more than 60 exhibits, including Monet, Renoir, Rembrandt, Chagall, Picasso, Diebenkorn, and Pulitzer Prize winning photographers.

But when Koostra questioned a request from Bodnar and former interim Provost Paul Kirgis to decorate the downtown Missoula Marriott with pieces from the museum’s permanent collection because the hotel “did not appear to have the security and climate control requirements necessary to protect the collection,” Bodnar and Kirgis “accused Ms. Koostra of refusing to cooperate.”

The lawsuit also noted the museum’s art is traditionally displayed at the UM president’s house and office. But it said Chelsea Bodnar, the president’s wife, directed the president’s staff to “inappropriately handle and move art in those locations, ignoring the concerns of the museum staff. This diminished and devalued Ms. Koostra’s professional role as the museum’s director.”

Six days after she complained about poor working conditions in a new office, the provost notified Koostra her contract would not be renewed because of budgetary constraints and reorganization, the lawsuit said. Then 62, Koostra was paid for another six months but prohibited from working, and UM replaced her with a male director “with fewer qualifications and a higher starting salary than Ms. Koostra received when she began,” according to the court document.

Sontag Bowman, a tenured associate professor in the School of Social Work, holds a doctorate, MSW and undergraduate in social work from the University of California, Berkeley, and she is a licensed clinical social worker, the lawsuit said. Bowman, 62, has been at UM since 2008 and remains in good standing, but she has hit her career ceiling at UM because she has been deprived of professional growth offered to male counterparts, according to the lawsuit.

“Before President Bodnar’s tenure at UM, Dr. Sontag Bowman did not experience limitations,” the lawsuit said. “During President Bodnar’s tenure, her career path hit a brick wall.”

Although the School of Social Work is dominated by women, its leadership roles “have long been held by men,” the lawsuit said. “Like other programs at the Missoula campus, UM’s ‘good ol boys’ club’ mentality permeates into the School of Social Work.”

The lawsuit also said UM leadership encouraged the only male faculty member and current chair to seek a second five-year term, “effectively foreclosing female leadership in the School of Social Work for a decade.”

“After a successful 13-year career, and asset for the School of Social Work, Dr. Sontag Bowman has hit a career-brick-wall,” the lawsuit said. “Despite her qualifications, UM discouraged her opportunities for professional growth and leadership while favoring her male counterparts.”

The lawsuit said Sontag Bowman has spoken out against gender inequity on campus, served as a whistleblower, and acted “under the persistent fear of retaliation.”

“At times, Dr. Sontag Bowman has been accused of being a bully by male UM employees simply for ensuring proper payment of her salary,” the lawsuit said.

Voorhees, hired in 2012 as dean of students, has more than 30 years of experience in higher education, and in 2002, she served as legislative assistant on Title IX for U.S. Rep. Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii, who co-wrote Title IX. The lawsuit said: “Voorhees assisted Congresswoman Mink in writing her last historical reflection on Title IX, published in the Congressional Record on July 17, 2002.”

The lawsuit said UM hired Voorhees while the Departments of Education and Justice investigated the sexual assault scandal at UM, and as a result, “UM involved Dr. Voorhees in discussions, policy revisions, and many aspects of UM’s response” to the findings.

“In this role, Dr. Voorhees became aware of many concerning situations and often alerted UM of Title IX violations and safety issues,” the lawsuit said. “She made repeated efforts to bring to light many concerns she had regarding student and campus safety, especially for female students and faculty, as well as for her own safety as dean of students.”

The lawsuit said despite the importance of keeping students safe and complying with Title IX, Voorhees’ reports “were often met with conflict, minimized, and/or entirely disregarded.”

“Acting through Lucy France, now UM’s legal counsel, and other leaders, UM often overrode Dr. Voorhees’ decisions to keep the campus safe,” the lawsuit said. “Ms. France made decisions, took actions, and guided and/or advised senior administrators, including the president, towards decisions that put the safety of the campus, students and community members, especially women, at risk.”

The lawsuit said Voorhees’ efforts to fulfill her obligations under Title IX “subjected her to retaliation, culminating in the elimination of her position and employment with UM.” UM eliminated her position, paid her for another 10 months while prohibiting her from working, yet never accused her of any wrongdoing, the lawsuit said.

“The Plaintiffs’ experiences … are only a few examples of this pervasive culture of a male domination and retaliation against experienced (often older) female professionals,” the lawsuit said.

In the case, the plaintiffs ask for a declaratory judgment stating defendants’ discriminatory practices violate Title IX, UM policies and Montana law. They also ask for damages “in an amount to be determined at trial,” plus damages for mental anguish and emotional distress.

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

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.