More women sign onto Title IX discrimination lawsuit against University of Montana

UM pushes back against claims with recent data from campus

By: - July 29, 2022 7:28 pm

The M on Mt. Sentinel stands above Main Hall on the University of Montana campus. (Provided by the University of Montana)

Twelve more women have signed off as plaintiffs for a total of 16 alleging gender discrimination in a lawsuit and possible class action case filed against the University of Montana and Montana University System — but UM said the facts on campus don’t back their narrative.

Filed on Friday in U.S. District Court of Montana in Missoula, an amended complaint identified the additional plaintiffs including a star runner and head track coach, former interim dean and two women who have been employed by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. The Commissioner’s Office oversees the university system.

“(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,” said the amended complaint. “UM did not create a glass ceiling for these women’s careers. UM created a brick wall for these women’s careers.”

The same day, UM pushed back against the allegations that it has created a hostile environment for women. Title IX of the Education Amendments states “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, UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said the campus will continue to “meet these allegations with the truth,” and he said a culture shift to empower women has taken place. He said UM is proud of the culture it’s building under President Seth Bodnar.

“We have worked hard to identify and remove barriers that impede promotions for female employees,” Kuntz said. “We have worked hard to build a campus-wide leadership team that more accurately reflects our community’s diversity. There is always more progress to be made, and we are committed to continuing the move forward.” 

Nearly one year ago, three former and one current high-ranking UM officials filed the lawsuit, arguing UM had fostered a “good ol’ boy” mentality. The lawsuit hasn’t named individual defendants, just John Does 1-50, but the narrative said Bodnar fostered a “retaliatory culture” against women.

Courtney Babcock, former head of cross country and assistant track and field coach for men’s and women’s teams, is among the new plaintiffs. Babcock alleges she was allocated inadequate office space and that while her salary did not increase in five years despite the advances she helped foster for the program, “the male Head Track and Field Coach’s wages increased by $14,000, with no championships or similar accolades.”

Former interim Dean Jennifer McNulty, who led the Dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, also joined the lawsuit. In the amended complaint, McNulty alleged she was excluded from meetings with the president and UM eventually passed over her to hire a male candidate with a fraction of her experience even though she had exceeded fundraising goals and received positive evaluations.

The amended complaint said the stories plaintiffs discuss are just a few examples of “this pervasive culture of male domination and retaliation against experienced (often older) female professionals.” The complaint also said female whistleblowers suffer retaliation.

In its defense, UM pointed to its recent track record of hiring the flagship’s first female provost, the second-in-command on campus; having half of its colleges led by deans who are female; and counting 78 percent of campus promotions since 2018 going to “highly qualified female employees.”

“Since 2018, 59 percent of all new hires have, again, been highly qualified female candidates, including 63 percent over the past 12 months,” UM said.

The original four plaintiffs are Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman, faculty member in social work, and former UM officials Catherine Cole, Barbara Koostra and Rhondie Voorhees.

In court earlier this summer, the plaintiffs asked the judge to certify the case as a class action given the number of females who had come forward, as many as 76 in all. UM and the Montana University System argued the claims aren’t similar enough to be in one class, and the judge should deny the request based on the lack of cohesion.

In court earlier this summer, the judge gave the plaintiffs until the end of July to compile a list of potential plaintiffs for the potential class action lawsuit. 

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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.